Aleksandr Beriozkin was born in Rogachov, Belorussia, in 1920 as Abram Beriozkin. He was the sixth of ten children of Solomon and Fayina Beriozkin. The family was religiously observant, and spoke Yiddish. Outside the domestic sphere, the parents spoke only basic Belorussian. Abram’s father, Solomon, was deemed "illiterate", because he could not write in Russian, only in Yiddish. In 1922, under the NEP (Soviet New Economic Policy), he opened a stall at the Rogachov market. In 1926, Solomon was arrested on the pretext of failing to pay his taxes; his house and all possessions, including the utensils and a baby’s crib, were seized by the local authorities. Solomon managed to escape from prison. He then agreed to settle in a Jewish agricultural colony in the Crimea, and it was this move that prevented him from being rearrested and saved his family from starvation.
During the 1932 famine in Ukraine, Abram and his elder brother fled from the Jewish colony; the brother volunteered to serve in the Black Sea Fleet (he would be declared missing during the Soviet-German War, having probably been killed in action), while Abram remained a vagrant, until he was detained and sent to an orphanage. He escaped from the orphanage, and was eventually adopted by a unit of the 1st Crimean Division, whose men treated him as a “son of the regiment.” As a former peasant’s son, he was sent by the unit to a veterinary college. During his studies, he also served as an unpaid assistant to a local doctor.
In 1938, Abram Beriozkin volunteered to serve in the Red Army; shortly thereafter, he was sent to the Moscow Military Veterinary Academy. Following the outbreak of the Soviet-German War in June 1941, the cadets were assigned to more active duty: overseeing the evacuation from Moscow, digging trenches, etc. In October 1941, the Academy was evacuated to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Central Asia, and resumed operation. In May 1943, Abram graduated from it in the rank of captain and, having qualifications as both a veterinarian and a physician, he was appointed head of the veterinary service of the 971st Artillery Regiment. The heavy howitzers of this regiment were horse-drawn, and all the horses were Beriozkin’s responsibility. With this regiment, he took part in the Kursk Salient operation; later, in 1943-44, he participated in the liberation of his native Belorussia. On several occasions, Beriozkin had to replace an officer who had just been killed in action and shoot from a howitzer. Only as the unit was marching through Belorussia did he grasp the full scope of the mass murder of the Jews.
In July 1944, Beriozkin's regiment entered the Majdanek death camp. The medical staff of the regiment stayed behind in the camp to administer first aid. Abram saw the mass graves and the camp survivors, who resembled walking corpses. Most of all, he was shocked by the sight of the children’s “block”. He asked the inmates repeatedly: Are you Jewish? Where are the Jews? He was told that all the Jews had been annihilated, and that the inmates he saw were non-Jewish.
After Majdanek, Abram’s regiment was transferred to East Prussia. He ended the war in April 1945 in Königsberg, where his regiment had been left for garrison duty.
Beriozkin was shell-shocked twice and wounded once. While crossing the Dnieper River in east Belorussia in winter 1944-45, he was shell-shocked and thrown into the ice-cold water by a blast wave. Having spent a long time submerged, he developed pneumonia. In the course of the war and during the immediate postwar period, he was awarded two Orders of the Red Star and a number of medals. His last military rank was major.
Beriozkin states that his comrades-in-arms knew that he was a Jew, and they lovingly nicknamed him “Abrasha” 1. It was only after the war that he first experienced antisemitism. At that time, he officially changed his first name to 'Aleksandr'. In 1948, Beriozkin was discharged from the military as an "invalid of the 2nd group" (this did not prevent the military authorities from drafting him again briefly in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis). Beriozkin settled in Samarkand, and in the 1960s-80s he was the veterinary inspector-in-chief of the Samarkand Region.
In 2009, Aleksandr Beriozkin joined his children in Israel. He died in 2016.
- 1. [YVA VT/10402]