Boris Tartakovskii was born in 1911 in the town of Meshcherskoe near Moscow. He served his regular army service in the Red Army from 1933 to 1935 and then received the rank of junior lieutenant. In 1941 he was a graduate student in the faculty of history at Moscow State University. He volunteered for a destruction battalion during the first days of the Soviet-German war. This kind of para-military formation, that was subordinate to the Soviet security agency the NKVD, consisted of college students and older high school pupils. Their assignments included rooting out army deserters, panic-mongers, subversives and tearing up German propaganda leaflets, etc. In September 1941 Tartakovskii was drafted into the Red Army. Since he had a fair knowledge of German, he began to serve as an instructor for propaganda among enemy forces in the 7th Infantry Brigade that in 1942-1943 was fighting in the Northern Caucasus. In battle on September 17, 1942 at Ishcherskaia Station, he replaced the battalion commissar when Red Army forces were attempting to repel a German tank attack. For his role in this battle in 1943 Tartakovskii was awarded the Order of the Red Star. In the spring of 1944 with the rank of captain, he began serving as an instructor in anti-enemy propaganda in the political administration of the 38th Army, which was fighting to liberate Ukraine. The head of that political department then was Major General David Ortenberg, well-known former editor of the main army newspaper Krasnaia zvezda (“Red Star”), who was removed from that post in 1943. Tartakovskii’s responsibilities included working at a radio station very close to the front lines, interrogating prisoners of war, reading German letters found in trenches and dugouts, and preparing leaflets and radio broadcasts. During the war Tartakovskii kept a journal, excerpts from which show how his ethnic consciousness altered and how concern with the fate of Jews became more prominent in his journal. During the first part of the war he was basically indifferent in regard to this topic, but in 1944, after having seen with his own his “a Ukraine without Jews,” as Vasily Grossman depicted it, Tartakovskii reacted quite differently. One of the “trophies” he brought home from the front was a Star of David made of yellow material that had been given to him as a Jewish Soviet officer by a former inmate of the ghetto of Zhmerinka.
In the summer of 1944 he was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd class. Tartakovskii ended the war in Czechoslovakia.
For some time after the war he served with the Soviet forces in East Germany. In the 1950s he joined the staff of the main Soviet ideological institution, Moscow’s Institute of Marxism-Leninism, that was affiliated with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Boris Tartakovskii's Diary Entry
On February 17, 1944 Tartakovskii wrote as follows in his diary about Zhmerinka, which had become part of Transnistria, the zone of Romanian occupation:
“It was the morning of a wonderfully sunny day. I was rushing to look at the most interesting and terrible phenomenon in the town – the famous Jewish ghetto. The lower part of the town, surrounded by a triple row of barbed wire, was turned into a ghetto by the Romanian authorities. Jews were transported there not only from Zhmerinka itself but also from many of the other regions of Transnistria. That was in November 1941. From that time, in unbelievably crowded conditions, deprived of all elementary human rights and in constant anticipation of almost certain death, many thousands of people of all ages lived here with their hearts practically stopped, listening every night [to hear], whether ‘they’ were coming to get them or not. For trying to leave the bounds of the ghetto without the required pass, one was shot, one was shot for anything at all…. The young people and, in general, those who were healthy were sent to work every morning – to repair roads, to carry stones, to do anything as long as it was physically demanding. And everyone wore a badge – a yellow six-pointed star on the left side of his chest. The most terrible days were the last ones (the Romanians left early and the Germans surrounded the city – everyone [in the ghetto] had already taken leave of life. And only our unexpected arrival saved them.
On that morning the town was full of people who had returned to life. For the first time in two and a half years they could walk along the street with heads raised, freely and independently, without the humiliating yellow star on their chests. The fence posts with barbed wire had been totally removed: that terrible barrier no longer existed. It was a touching sight. For the first time in my life I regretted that I did not know the Jewish language [i.e., Yiddish]….”
Boris Tartakovskii continued this entry with the following about Kamenets-Podolsk that had been located in German zone of occupation:
“Further, beyond the gate there begin the narrow alleys of the old city. Now this is a city of death. Formerly these areas were filled with a large portion of the local Jews. The Germans first turned the old city into a real ghetto and then they destroyed all its residents and the city itself. Steps resound on the squares overgrown with grass, the broken windows of houses look on in silence, and remnants of wallpaper are still visible on the ruins of destroyed walls. Very occasionally a person will pass by or a stray dog will run past. Silence….”
Boris Tartakovskii, Iz dnevnikov voennykh let (From [My] Journals of the War Years), Moscow, 2005, pp. 170-171, 176.