Bezalel (Salek) Linhard. Boryslav, 1946
Salek Linhard was born in 1928 in Borysław, Poland (now the town of Boryslav, together with the whole of Eastern Galicia, is part of Ukraine). His family arrived in Eastern Galicia in the 18th century from Bohemia. Salek's great-grandfather and grandfather were confectioners. In the 20th century the family business passed into the hands of Salek's uncle, Jakub (Yaakov), while his father became a furrier. His mother was even more successful in business than her husband. She opened a sewing workshop, where she engaged eight seamstresses, and later operated a hotel in the nearby resort town of Truskawiec (now Truskavets). Salek's father belonged to the leftist Poalei Zion party. After the Soviets, following the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement, annexed the area in 1939, they declared the Linhards to be capitalist exploiters and nationalized all their businesses, but refrained from expelling them to Siberia. Thus, the German occupation in June 1941 caught the extended Linhard family where they had been living.
For the Jews of Borysław the German occupation began with a bloody pogrom perpetrated by local non-Jews; dozens of Jews were killed. The German occupiers did not intervene. In November 1941, the Linhards survived a Germans murder operation in the town. In August 1942, a second "Aktion" took place, in which 3,000 Jews were deported to the Bełżec death camp. After that, a ghetto was established in the town. In one of the following murder operations all of Bezalel's maternal relatives were killed. In May 1943, the ghetto was liquidated, and Salek, his father and sister – at that time the sole survivors of all the Linhards – were transferred to a labor camp in the nearby town of Drohobycz.
During his stay in the ghetto, Bezalel joined an underground youth group. He harbored only one dream: to take revenge on the Nazis for their murder of the members of his family and of other Jews. In the spring of 1943, many former members of the group were transferred to the camp but they succeeded in escaping from it. Many of his comrades joined partisans, either Soviet or Polish leftist ones (affiliated with Gwardia Ludowa, "the People's Guard"). After his father's death, Bezalel also succeeded in escaping from the labor camp. He joined a group of eighteen Jews from nearby ghettos and, together with them, lived in a shelter that was constructed in a nearby forest.
One day in the summer of 1944, the Jews in the shelter learned that the Germans were in retreat from the area. Some time later, in August 1944, the Red Army arrived. Bezalel parted from his group and went to his native town of Boryslav. First, he was treated in a Soviet hospital. Then he tried to volunteer to join the Red Army's 151st Rifle Division that was stationed in the vicinity of the town since he believed that the Red Army could help him take revenge on the Germans. He was rejected because he was only 16 years old. However, some of the Russian soldiers were touched by his story and he was allowed to remain with the division. The soldiers who had never heard either the names Bezalel or that of Salek, called him "Seriozha" (a diminutive for Sergei); Bezalel prudently preserved the name Sergei in all his Soviet documents. One of the subaltern officers undertook the task of getting Seriozha enlisted into the division and he succeeded. This happened this way: one day Bezalel was summoned to an office, where he had to fill out several forms, he was photographed and given a uniform, and then assigned to a reconnaissance unit.
Bezalel recollected that he was not met with enthusiasm in the unit. After glancing at him, one of the officers said, "Look, they are drafting children now. Doesn't Russia have enough adult soldiers anymore?" Then, however, he called to a sergeant and issued the following: "Ivan, make a soldier from this boy. Can you do it in two days?"1
In fact, two days proved to be enough to make a soldier out of Bezalel. Still, for a long time, he remained a "son of the regiment," i.e., a kind of mascot who was never sent on combat missions. Linhard's baptism by fire took place half a year after his formal acceptance into the Red Army, in the Carpathian Mountains. He was included into a group whose assignment was to ascend a 1,000-meter high mountain to establish an observation post and to secure a telephone cable from there to the division headquarters. After a hard march through deep snow, the unit discovered that the cable had been cut. Bezalel volunteered to descend along the cable and to find the break. A veteran soldier was sent along "to safeguard the boy." The two soldiers descended through the deep snow. They found the break, but were immediately fired at from an enemy ambush. Linhard and his elder comrade returned fire. The firefight lasted an hour and a half. The two soldiers appeared to be doomed, but suddenly, a nearby Soviet regiment came to their aid. After this incident, Linhard was awarded the "For Courage" medal.2
In Uzhgorod (Ungvar) Linhart was wounded. After his release from hospital, he resumed fighting. After taking part in the battle for Budapest in January and February 1945, he was transferred to Vienna and, then, to Yugoslavia. Bezalel was not demobilized at the end of the war from the Red Army, but sent to his native area of Eastern Galicia to fight against anti-Soviet partisans – the nationalist (and rabidly antisemitic) Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Bezalel was wounded once more and was sent to the same hospital in Boryslav where he had been a year before, when he had emerged from the forest.
After Linhard's release from the hospital, the commander of his division summoned him and recommend for an officers' course so that he might become a career officer. However, Bezalel refused, mentioning his surviving sister (about whom he had learned in Vienna) who lived in Poland. The general said: "You, the Jews, always have some close relative somewhere. I am saying that not out of antisemitism, but because I know Jews well – before the war, all my friends were Jewish." However, after an extensive correspondence with the military authorities and a long wait, Bezalel's request to be released from the Red Army was approved. The same general summoned him once more and asked, "But maybe you would prefer the career of a Soviet officer to returning to pogromists?" [That was how he referred to the Poles]. When Linhard refused the general's offer, he was dismissed from the army.
Before leaving the Soviet Union for Poland, a transit station in his way to the Palestine, Bezalel visited the mass grave in Boryslav where his mother, grandmother, aunts, and numerous cousins, including babies, were buried. "I sat on the grave and cried", he recalled.
In 1948, Bezalel Linhard arrived in the newly established State of Israel, where he subsequently served in the police. He married and had three children and nine grandchildren. As Bezalel concluded, the Linhard family had been revived.3
Linkhard regrets on his being a "son of the regiment" rather then a soldier
Despite being formally drafted into the Red Army, 16-year-old Bezalel Linhard remained a "son of the regiment" of the 151st Rifle Division, for a long time being kept out of combat. This situation irked him since he was eager to take part in military operations, even if they did not yet entail serious danger.
"Meanwhile I learned Russian to the point where I was very good in using it. I also learned to drink vodka without vomiting and began to smoke cigarettes made of 'makhorka' [a kind of home-grown Russian tobacco], which were made with pieces of paper torn from the newspaper 'Pravda' … I began demanding to take part in small and less dangerous military operations – because at the beginning I was banned from taking risks. I resented this very much since I had joined the army in order to revenge. If I could not, what did I need an army for? On the other hand, Russia had a great many soldiers so my participation [in combat] would hardly change the outcome of the war in favor of Russia!"4
- 1. Linhard, Bezalel (Salek), Heemanti she-eshaer ba-ḥayim: maavaḳo shel naar lisrod be-geṭo Borislav uva-Zava ha-Adom, Jerusalem: Yad Ṿashem, 2005. p. 148.
- 2. Op. cit., pp. 150-1.
- 3. Op. cit., p. 240.
- 4. Linhard, Bezalel (Salek), Heemanti she-eshaer ba-ḥayim: maavaḳo shel naar lisrod be-geṭo Borislav uva-Zava ha-Adom, Jerusalem: Yad Ṿashem, 2005. p. 149.