Chaim Shapiro was born in Łomża, Poland in 1922 to a religious Jewish family. He studied in the Kamenitzer Yeshiva, intending to become a rabbi. One of Chaim's younger brothers, Nosson, was killed by the Germans during their short occupation of Łomża in September 1939. At the end of 1939, when Łomża, together with the whole of Eastern Poland, was annexed to the Soviet Union, the yeshiva moved to the then Lithuanian city of Vilna, or Vilnius, and Chaim continued his studies there. When Vilnius was also Sovietized in 1940, Chaim decided to return to Łomża. On his way home, without any Soviet documents, he was stranded in a Belorussian town in June 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began.
It was a kind of miracle that helped Chaim flee eastward, to the inner part of the Soviet Union. A Soviet officer let him join his family, which was headed eastward by train. After many "adventures," he arrived at a village near Kuibyshev (now Samara) on the Volga River. There he worked on the local kolkhoz (collective farm) as a tractor mechanic and, at the same time, learned Russian.
Shapiro's path to active service in the Red Army was long and complicated. His first attempt to volunteer for the Red Army in the summer of 1941 was rejected by the Kuibyshev regional voienkomat (recuitment office) because he was a "Westerner." In the early spring of 1942, he was summoned to the voienkomat, but this draft was intended to provide manpower for labor battalions and he was taken for this purpose. His attempt to volunteer to join the Polish Army of General Anders that was under formation in the Soviet Union in 1942 was also abortive: he was rejected by the Polish military on the ludicrous pretext that he was ill with typhus. At the beginning of 1943 Shapiro was mobilized once more – and once more not for combat but for a military construction battalion! His formation was sent to rebuild Stalingrad, where the great battle had been ended a short time before. His attempt to transfer from his construction unit to the Red Army proper or to the newly formed Polish pro-Soviet 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division also failed — even though Shapiro appealed to the Military Commissariat in Moscow.
However, in the winter of 1944, the Kościuszko Division, which was suffering from a shortage of conscripts, agreed to accept Chaim Shapiro as a soldier. It was even recommended that he be sent to officers' school. In fact, as a former tractor mechanic, Chaim was assigned to a tank unit. In the spring of 1944 he graduated from a tank crew school with the rank of sergeant, with the promise that, after he saw combat, he would be promoted to lieutenant. At the time he was sent to the front lines, the Red Army was fighting in the vicinity of Lublin. After his first serious battle, Shapiro was indeed promoted and was awarded two medals: a Soviet one and a Polish one. Later he took part in the liberation of Lublin. During the battles on the Wieprz River, southeast of Warsaw, he was wounded. After his release from hospital, he took part in the forcing of the Vistula River and in the fighting for Warsaw. At that time, the Polish authorities began to conscript young Poles into the new Polish Army. As a Polish-speaking tank crew member, Shapiro was assigned to a newly established Polish tank school as an instructor. Thus, he met Victory Day on Polish soil. He earned a total of five medals, some of them Polish and some Soviet.
While moving westward in the summer and fall of 1944 across Ukraine and eastern Poland, Shapiro saw traces of the Nazi Holocaust. Seeing Poland without Jews shocked him as he began to realize to what extent his homeland was, as the Nazis wanted, "judenrein". His decision was unambiguous: "I realized that I could not build my future in a cemetery,'' 1 he wrote in his memoirs. In May 1945, having received leave to visit his native town of Łomża, Shapiro changed his supposed route. He joined a group of Soviet officers traveling by train to Germany and, risking arrest by a Soviet military patrol, arrived in Berlin. A Jewish survivor of a Nazi camp,whom he met in Berlin, provided him with civilian clothes and accompanied him to a Jewish refugee center. While Shapiro was changing his clothes, the survivor noticed the five medals on his chest. In his memoirs Shapiro described what then happened: "'Better get rid of them,' he [the survivor] said. 'They can get you in trouble.' Without hesitation I tore them off my uniform. As we passed the river, I dropped my medals into the water." 2
The Jewish refugee center helped Shapiro to cross the border illegally from the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany to the British zone. When he arrived in France, he was able to resume his yeshiva studies. Within a short time he obtained a visa to the USA. Chaim Shapiro and his wife Hadassa arrived in America in 1949 and settled in Baltimore. Chaim became an Orthodox rabbi and a prolific author of books, articles, and historical essays.
Chaim Hyman Shapiro died in 2000.