Chaim Gelfenbein was born in 1918 in Odessa. His father Pinkhus, a petty clerk, died from typhus in 1920, when the son was only two years old. Chaim’s mother Feige and his maternal grandmother had to work in order to provide for him and his sister. In 1924, Feige joined the Communist Party, and this enabled her to quit her hard and poorly paid job for a better one. She would eventually become an administrative worker. Chaim was brought up by his uncle. He finished an 8-year school, followed by a vocational school at the Odessa Ievrabmol (Faculty of Jewish Working Youth). He was then employed as a metalworker at several factories in the city. In 1939, Chaim followed his mother's example and joined the Party, thereby exchanging his hard manual job for an easier administrative post.
Chaim was exempt from military service because of his weak eyesight, but, when the Soviet-German War broke out, he felt that, as a Communist, it was his duty to aid in the defense of his Motherland. He joined an Odessa destruction battalion, a volunteer unit tasked with maintaining internal security in the city. Since most of the destruction battalions were merged with the Red Army, Gelfenbein also had to take part in the defense of Odessa. In September 1941, his platoon was surrounded, and he was taken prisoner by the Romanian army.
The Romanians escorted the column of Soviet POWs to a camp near Constanța in eastern Romania. En route, they demanded that the Jewish POWs reveal their identity, and promised that they would be treated no differently from the other POWs. Despite their promise, any POW who declared himself Jewish would be shot on the spot. Gelfenbein did not trust the promises of the “fascists”, and claimed to be a Russian named Viktor Zhebrak (Zhebrak, Ukrainian for pauper, was the maiden name of his Jewish wife). In this way, he survived, since the Romanians did not bother to check whether his story was true.
Gelfenbein passed through a succession of POW camps all over Romania in 1941-44. He would later testify that the treatment of Soviet POWs by the Romanians was horrific: the guards would beat the inmates with rifle butts on the slightest pretext, or even for no reason at all 1. Moreover, the gendarmes would sell off whatever meager foodstuffs reached the camps to feed the POWs, and the inmates would starve. Gelfenbein fell ill with pleuritis, and was sent to a military hospital. He was surprised to find out that some of his Romanian doctors were Jewish. Eventually, Gelfenbein was sent to work at a factory as a manual laborer. He tried to escape, but was caught and sent to a prison camp.
On August 20, 1944, the Red Army crossed the Pruth River, and on 23 August, following a decision by King Michael of Romania, the country switched sides, joining the Allies and declaring war on the Axis (i.e., Germany and Hungary). The situation of the Soviet POWs in the Romanian camps changed dramatically. The attitude of the Romanian officers toward the servicemen of their new Soviet ally became courteous overnight. The prisoners were transferred to a stadium in the city of Brașov (central Romania), and they were now allowed to voice their protests against the gendarmes’ brutality; the camp commandant heard them out politely. Gelfenbein says that he then assumed leadership of the temporary camp at the stadium 2, and some other POWs joined him to form a leading committee. Quite a few of these new leaders turned out to be Jews who had similarly survived Romanian captivity by passing themselves off as non-Jews. The committee had two main goals: supplying the prisoners with food and medicine; and collecting the Soviet POWs from the smaller camps and factories where they were employed as manual laborers, and bringing them to the Brașov stadium, in order to form a military unit for the advancing Red Army. The Romanians did not hinder the committee’s activities.
After the Soviet occupation of Brașov, Gelfenbein joined the 33rd Rifle Corps, and was assigned to the corps’ household unit as a supplier, procuring foodstuffs for the troops. With this corps, he went through Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, and met V-E Day in Austria. He was awarded two medals. His family had survived in the Soviet interior.
After the war, Gelfenbein was discharged from the army because of his many health problems, including poor eyesight. He then worked in the field of industrial administration and supply. In 1970, he was arrested on charges of theft of public property, and was released from jail only in 1981.
An antisemitic Soviet soldier at a Romanian POW camp.
“I had to fight with one [antisemitic POW]. He molested me: jidan, jidan [a Romanian pejorative for a Yid]… Afterward, he went to fetch a gendarme, and said that I was a jidan. The gendarme asked me: Is it true? I said: No, I am not a jidan. And he spat and went away. At this point, I began to clobber this guy, and none [of the other POWs] lifted a finger”. 3