Efim Golbraikh was born in 1921 in Vitebsk. Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, his father, Abel, had been a member of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party. After the Revolution, he distanced himself from political activity and was employed in clerical work. In 1937, Abel was arrested as an "enemy of the people" and executed shortly thereafter. As was often the case at that time, the families of those who had been "repressed" were not informed about the deaths of their loved ones, but would merely receive a notice with the following phrase: "Sentenced to 10 years without the right of correspondence." Only in the 1950s would Efim learn that his father was executed. Efim himself was fortunate: he was not dismissed from school as a child of an "enemy of the people", but was even permitted to enter the Department of Physics and Mathematics of the Vitebsk Pedagogical Institute. However, his application to study at the Higher Military-Naval School was denied.
When the Soviet-German war began on June 22, 1941, Efim rushed to the military commission to volunteer for frontline duty. He succeeded in having his mother and brother evacuated just several days before the capture of Vitebsk by the German army. With the city in chaos, Efim's efforts to join a rifle division failed. Golbraikh was then sent to Moscow, although he had to make part of the way on foot. In Moscow, Efim was enrolled as a second-year student at the Moscow Pedagogical State Institute. However, when the Institute began to organize partisan units for fighting behind enemy lines, he was not selected. They took only those who did not have any relatives in territories that had been occupied by the Germans.
As a result, Golbraikh would not be drafted into the Red Army until the spring of 1942. He was then assigned to a reserve tank regiment in Kazan, where he was trained as a gunner and radio operator. Shortly before his dispatch to the front, his superiors decided to appoint Golbraikh a komsorg (a Komsomol, or Communist League, organizer). However, when they found out that Efim's father had been repressed, they denied him the coveted post in a tank regiment, assigning him instead to a reserve rifle regiment that was stationed in the Mari Autonomous Republic. Some time later, he went to the front with an infantry company. He ended up in Stalingrad, where he took part in bloody battles, but managed to survive. Very quickly, he became commander of a squad, which was decimated in the next battle, with only four survivors (himself among them). Two weeks after engaging in combat, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. The following comes from his memoir:
The commander of the regiment, whose last name was Khudolei, looked at me [and said]: 'Komsomol, you must lead by example!' Since many people could not pronounce my last name, they called me 'Komsomol' [member] – because, by that time, I was komsorg of the company. I crawled up to a destroyed tank, and there were two dead communications men lying there – the handiwork of a German sniper. I raised my head just a little, and there was a shot! The sniper's bullet hit the body of one of the dead communications men. I was lying behind the bodies, not daring to move, the sniper ready to kill me on the spot… I clamped together the ends of the communication line with my teeth. And there was a connection! 1
In mid-November 1942, Efim Golbriakh was assigned to a division that crossed the Don River. He then took part in the offensive operation that resulted in Paulus' army being surrounded at Stalingrad. The following December, Golbraikh was involved in fierce fighting when a tank division under the leadership of General Erich Manshtein (Field Marshal of the Wehrmacht) crushed the division in which he was serving. As Efim recalled in his memoir:
The Germans surrounded us, and, toward nightfall, I remained with a group of ten soldiers. By that time, I already had one 'cube' on my lapel [the insignia of a junior lieutenant]. My men said: 'Take command, Second Lieutenant. Get us out of here back to our own lines.' I had a pistol, while the others had only rifles, and not a single grenade. The road was right next to us, but it was swarming with German troops. At the same time, Germans were also combing through the field where we were lying. We realized that this was the end – we either would die or be taken prisoner. We exchanged addresses. The Russian lads regarded the prospect of captivity with equanimity: 'Well, what can you do? That's war – anything can happen'. But for me, a Jew, to be captured was unthinkable! I had no wish to be executed… I wanted to live… So I told the soldiers: "Boys, if they take us prisoner, don't tell them that I am a Jew.' Their answer was silence…'2
Fortunately, the group of survivors, including Golbraikh, managed to evade the Wehrmacht soldiers and reach Red Army lines.
Subsequently, as company commander, Efim took part in the battles for the liberation of the Donbass in late summer and early fall of 1943. That year, he was seriously wounded and shell-shocked. During his subsequent hospitalization, he came down with typhus.
Nevertheless, after recovering he resumed his frontline service as deputy commander of a penal company, which was made up of former commanding officers who had been demoted for some reason: criminals, deserters, and some innocents who were unjustly punished. While in charge of this company, Lieutenant Golbraikh participated in the liberation of the Crimea. He ended the war in Courland (Latvia). In the course of the war, he was awarded two Orders of the Red Star, the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Class, and a number of medals.
After the war, Golbraikh became a writer. Among the books he wrote are Zapiski teatral'nogo administratora [Notes of a Theater Administrator] (1989), Ispovedi rishonskogo parka [Confessions of a Rishon Lezion Park] (1995), Byloi voiny razroznennye stroki [Scattered Lines about a Past War] (2006), and Ocherki. Esse, Sud'by [Sketches, Essays, Fates] (2006).
In the early 1990s, Efim Golbraikh and his family left the USSR for Israel.
From the memoir of Efim Golbraikh, on the ethnic composition of penal companies:
There were hardly any Jews among the soldiers of our penal company. During the months of combat that I spent with them – which is a long time indeed when you are at war – I encountered only a single Jew; people were not slow to point him out to me. He was a tailor from the Baltic region, and he looked neither dejected nor unhappy. Jews have a high sense of duty; if they ended up in a penal company, it was only by accident, or for some small thing. Of course, an antisemitic commander could have a Jew "thrown into the oven" of a penal company. And this did happen…"
From the memoirs of Efim Golbraikh, on the relations between the members of the penal company and their commander
I know of an actual case where some of the old soldiers "bumped off" the commander of their battalion in the heat of battle. That commander had been a vile creature who humiliated both soldiers and officers, treating them cruelly for no reason. Here is an example, to give you some idea of what that insect was like. In his battalion, there was one soldier, [a Jew named] Grinberg, who used a grenade to blow himself up along with twelve Germans, in a dugout that they had captured. The company superior cautiously suggested that he be posthumously nominated for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. In response, the battalion commander said "There is [simply] one less Jew!" Some of his own men shot him; the whole battalion knew about this, but no one gave them away.''
Efim Golbraikh on Antisemitism in the Army
Only once, in 1943, did I ask the commander of my regiment what was being down with regards to the Order of the Red Banner, for which I had been recommended, but I did not get an answer. Later, things became clear. We had a clerk at the regimental headquarters, a certain Pisarenko (there was a perfect match between his duties as a clerk [pisar' in Russian] and his last name): he destroyed the document discussing the prospect of my award, because my [Jewish] last name displeased him. He later sent me a letter while I was in hospital, where he expressed remorse and asked my forgiveness…
What does it matter now whether they gave it to me or not. Jews were often passed over for awards: I know of many cases similar to my own. Do you want documentary proof of this? I can give you as many examples as you like: the tank crew members Mindlin, Fishel'son, and Pergamenshchik; the infantry battalion commander Rapoport; the fliers Nikhomin and Rapoport; the partisan Berenshtein, and the marine Leibovich, [all of] whom were recommended for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union three times during the war, but never received this honor. In the infantry, unlike the tank or artillery units, antisemitism was entrenched, overt, and rampant. And one shouldn't forget another important detail – I was the son of "an enemy of the people." It said so in my personal officers' file. Take, for instance, Grigorii Pozhenian, who was twice nominated for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, but did not receive that honor. His personal file had a subscript in red pencil, to the effect that his mother was a Jew, while his father was "an enemy of the people." Back then, such an annotation was no laughing matter."