November 28, 2000
I have read your memoirs (‘My Jewish War’) with great interest and was surprised to find similarities between your fate and mine, and even some details in your story resembling my personal experience during the war.
I had my own Jewish war that started from the very first days of my being in the army, after I volunteered to join the field service in 1943. I felt I was a stranger there, which was absolutely unexpected, as at my age of seventeen I was naïve enough to believe that all fellow soldiers would be my friends in fulfilling our common sacred duty to fight against the Nazi plague that had invaded Europe and half of my country. A year later, in hospital, I could have signed your supposition that enemies were not only those who wore German uniforms. Let me tell you a couple of episodes to illustrate it.
It was in the army that I for the first time heard a general opinion that “There were no Jews in the army – Jews were all in the rear, selling goods in shops.” I was the only Jew in the platoon, and, on top of that, I was wearing glasses. When I pointed at myself trying to prove they were lying about Jews, they would laugh in my face and say, “You are here because you are stupid. All the rest of Jews are clever, they work in the shops.” Eventually, after six months being in a training regiment, I managed to vindicate my claim of respect by words and fists.
Later, at the front line, the problems worsened. New soldiers and officers were coming and going, and anti-Semitic outbursts aimed at me – sneering, distrust and direct tormenting – happened more and more often.
After a long and exhausting march, we were told to dig ourselves pits in stony ground. I dug out my pit and, my strength drained away, instantly fell asleep. I was woken up by a loud call of my sergeant. He ordered that I cover in my pit and dig out another one, because mine was out of line with others. I said, “This is the front, not a parade. Go away.” He raised his hand to hit me. I jumped up and leveled my automatic rifle at his chest. He reached at his pistol, and the same moment I jerked the breechblock and put my finger on the trigger. Heavy seconds passed. He turned pale and receded. It saved his life – and my life, too. If I had shot him, the next day I would have been tried by a military tribunal.
Another story. We were in a dense Finnish forest when we came under a mass mine shelling. People ran every each way. When it was over, I went to look for my co-soldiers and on the way found an officer’s bag hanging on a tree. I remembered the instruction saying that all bags found in the forest should be brought to the headquarters, and picked the bag off the tree. In some time, when I found my people, I handed it to my company commander. For some reason he was outraged and cracked down on me:
– Where did you get it?
– It was hanging on a tree. You said yourself that all bags…
– Shut up! Where’s the tobacco?
– What tobacco?
– There was a pack of tobacco in the bag! Have you stolen it?
Taken aback, I took a minute to answer.
– I didn’t open the bag. Didn’t take or see any tobacco. I don’t smoke at all.
– Shut up! Go to your place! Dig in!
I went away, not saying a word, and carried out the order. I dug out a pit between two pines and asked my neighbor:
– What drove the captain so mad?
– He lost his bag. Went to pee in the bushes, hung it there and then lost it. And you revealed the fact. He was mad as hell, yelling “I’ll shoot him!”
Five minutes later the captain called me. He pointed at a large clearing down in the valley, about 50 meters from where we were, and asked:
– Do you hear a wounded man screaming?
– I do.
– Go get him!
I looked down at the clearing. The place was open to bullet-sweeping from all sides. I understood why he was sending me there. But an order was an order. I asked if I could leave my automatic rifle behind before going. The request made him furious. He pulled out a gun, put it to my forehead and wheezed out:
– You leave it and I’ll shoot you right here!
I swung the rifle to my back and started crawling down the hill, awaiting a Soviet bullet in my back or a Finnish bullet from any other side. I came down to the wounded man. It was a tall and heavy guy lying on the ground, groaning and rattling. He was half-naked. His chest was ripped with a perforating wound; behind him was his spade destroyed by a shell bullet. With much difficulty I managed to lift him on my back. He was very heavy; the darned rifle was hampering my every move. I crawled up the hill, conquering every foot, driving off the ground and roots. I can’t remember how long I was dragging him, but finally I was up the hill. I put the dead body at the feet of the captain and made an attempt to stand up but couldn’t and fell down on the grass.
– Off to your place! – I heard through the noise in my ears.
My shirt was all wet and sticky with blood. I dragged myself to my pit and flaked out. I didn’t sleep long. The captain woke me up soon and sent me on sentry to guard sleeping soldiers. He warned me that I shouldn’t fall asleep, as in this area the Finns once knifed to death the entire company while a sentry was asleep.
I took this story seriously and for three hours was torn between sinking into oblivion and waking. In the morning another sentry relieved me and I had two hours to sleep before we marched on.
Thinking about it then, I tried to find logic in my captain’s actions. After all, he had a full right to give me orders, and I was obliged to follow them. And I did it with all my effort; the only trouble was, I didn’t always have enough strength to do everything he wanted – well, as they say, war is no gingerbread.
But in a couple of days I got a clear proof that my logical construct was incorrect. It was all much simpler.
On a path in the forest I met with an old soldier who served as a battalion clerk in the headquarters. He stopped me.
– I should warn you. Be careful, the company captain hates you and will make everything to finish you.
– What do you mean, finish me? Why?
– Because you are Jewish. No longer than in two days you will be killed or wounded. He will help it happen.
Everything was now perfectly clear. I had no other choice but to thank the soldier and realize that I had no chances to survive.
However, my fortune had a different solution. The old soldier happened to be right. The next day I was seriously wounded. This wound saved my life, and if it was an act of God, I must thank him for a long life I’ve been living.
January 1, 2001
Our correspondence has developed into an interesting course. In particular, the most interesting thing for me is the fact that two people who don’t know each other and live on the opposite ends of the globe have had similar episodes in their lives and similar reactions to them. I guess the main thing uniting us is hatred for anti-Semitism and for indignity. Further discussion of this issue would require a face-to-face conversation, so I am passing on to your questions.
In 1962 I was knocked off the rails by a serious eye decease, a consequence of the starvation during the siege of Leningrad . After one year in hospitals I lost sight on my left eye. I feared for the other eye and therefore decided to leave my daughters memories of the hardest period in my life, which was my service in the army. Two or three months later I completed the manuscript and put it into my desk drawer, where it sat for 32 years. In 1995 my story was published in the St. Petersburg literary magazine ” Neva “. I don’t need to explain why it couldn’t have been published earlier.
On July 11, 1944 I was heavily wounded. I was offered a choice in a local hospital: an attempt to save my arm with little hope for success and a risk of gangrene, or an amputation and a guaranteed life. I chose the latter. Thus my military service was over after six months in a training regiment, three weeks at the front and nine months in hospitals.
After returning home in April 1945, I was thinking where to go for studies and what career to choose. I have to say that I had already known for a long time what track to choose – I wanted to become a sculptor. Having passed entrance exams, I was admitted to the Leningrad Art School . My diploma work, a statue of a pilot ( 2,2 meters high) was transferred into bronze and fixed up in one of the city parks in St. Petersburg ; it is still there.
I won’t go into details speaking about joys and difficulties of an artist’s life. You asked me a question: “What were people’s attitudes toward the men who had done the fighting in general and Jews among them in particular”. I can say that it depended on the people.
The last episode in my book tells of the Victory Day celebration in Leningrad on May 9, 1945 . The atmosphere in the whole city was festive; everyone was excited; the day was bright and beautiful. The festive crowds were gathering to welcome the victorious troops walking through the city. I put on my military uniform shirt and trousers, attached a yellow ribbon to the left side of my shirt and went out. Soldiers and officers were marching in triumphant columns; generals were standing in their Willis jeeps; and a brass band was playing. Then the columns stopped and people ran forward to greet and hug the soldiers. I moved forward too, but was stopped by a woman in front of me. She had a loaf of bread in one hand and half a bottle of vodka in the other. “Don’t push!” she said angrily. And added, “You don’t belong here.” Then the columns marched on and gleeful crowds followed them. I didn’t. I slowly walked in the opposite direction – back to my home – closely studying cracks in the pavement.
Later I seldom experienced anything like that. In the Art School I met with wonderful people who were very kind and helpful and didn’t even think of ethnic or any other differences between each other. They were normal people – and are my friends until today.
Anti-Semitism was formally banned and smoldered somewhere underground, sometimes bursting out in the street or public transport – mainly from drunk ex-soldiers or war invalids who were aggrieved and embittered people trying to find someone to blame for their unhappy lives. I wasn’t paying much attention to these incidents until 1949, when the government started a campaign against “cosmopolitanism” followed by the notorious Doctors’ Plot when doctors were called “killers in white overalls”. Almost all of the accused were Jews. The case was dismissed right after Stalin’s death; the doctors were released from prison, and life went on.
With perestroika and the newly announced principles of democracy, xenophobia and racism bloomed freely and openly, but that is a different story. Or may be not.