Andrei Portianskii was born as Aron Portianskii in 1920 in Moscow, but according to his documents he was born in 1921. In 1939 Aron entered the 1st Moscow Medical Institute (University), but he managed to study for less than two months since he was drafted into the Red Army in October of that year. After basic training with the 23rd Rifle Division in Ukraine, Portianski was transferred to Daugavpils, Latvia, where the division participated in the Soviet annexation of the country.
In June 1941 Operation Barbarossa began. Portianskii began the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in Lithuania, from which the Red Army retreated. With his disintegrating division, halting for skirmishes with the pursuing enemy, the small group of Soviet soldiers that included Portianski proceeded eastward, crossing Belorussia until it arrived in the Pskov Region of Russia. While crossing the railroad line near the Loknia station, Aron saw a horrific picture: a young woman hanging by her chin on an electricity pole, with her arms and legs tied, and a sign affixed to her chest on which was inscribed the word "Jüdin" [Jewess]. This shocking sight tormented him all his life. 1
In the Pskov Region Portianskii and his comrades realized that they were surrounded by the enemy. His commander, an ethnic Russian, said to him"Aron, you are Jewish. You will be shot right away if you are captured. Hide your soldier's [identity] card. We won't betray you, we will call you by the name Andrei. Remember, from this day on, you are Andrei."
Aron-Andrei was not captured, but neither was he able to escape from German-held territory to the Soviet side. Like other Red Army soldiers stuck in German-occupied territory, he lived in various Russian villages (being forced to change his place of residence when the rumor began circulating locally that he was Jewish) and carried out the usual peasant chores. Maintaining contact with other (non-Jewish) "surroundees," he lived this way in the Pskov Region until February 1944.
After the Red Army arrived in this area, Portianskii admitted that he had spent three winters in enemy territory. As a consequence, he was sent to a special "filtration" camp, where he was held for three months. During the final stage of his "filtration," when he was absolved of blame for "cooperating with the enemy" and a camp officer was preparing new documents for him, Portianskii asked that his first name appear as Aron. He received a negative reply, being told "You will be Andrei for the rest of your life."
In May 1944, Andrei was assigned to a penal company of the 22nd Army. After the storming of the obscure "hill 371.2" somewhere near the Russian-Latvian border, out of the 200 soldiers of the company, only six, including Portianskii, remained alive and unwounded. After this three-day long operation, in which Andrei operated an anti-tank gun, he was not only awarded the Order of Glory, 3rd class, but, while formally remaining a soldier in his penal company, he was given a safe job. Nonetheless, he continued fighting when it was called for. In August 1944, after a heavy battle near the village of Ļaudāni, eastern Latvia, he was awarded his second military order, that of Glory, 2nd class.
In January 1945 Portianskii was released from the penal company and transferred to Romania, which at that time was free of fighting. There he met Victory Day. In November 1945 he was demobilized.
After that, he once more attempted to restore his original name Aron – and once more, this request was rejected. Some "smart people" then advised him to cease this effort in order to avoid further trouble. Apparently he agreed because he remained Andrei even after his immigration to Israel in the 1990s.
- 1. Andrei Portianskii, Moia voina, Beer-Sheva, 2005, p. 31