Elie Gekhtman was born in 1923 in Zhitomir in the Ukraine. Since his father Hersh was an invalid who could not work but did not receive any disability pension, Elie recalled his childhood as one of constant hunger. Elie finished two grades of Yiddish elementary school but then the Soviet authorities closed it. It was recommended that Elie to study at a Ukrainian-language school but he did not want to do so. As a result, from 1933 to 1938 he led the life of a young vagabond. In view of this circumstance the authorities did not consider him an appropriate candidate to join the Komsomol (Young Communist League), which was basically the norm for every Soviet young person aged 14-15. In 1938, his father found work for him as an apprentice to a barber. In the following year, he was already working as a barber at a military air base west of Berdichev, 40 kilometers south of his native Zhitomir.
On the night before June 22, 1941, the day of the German attack on the Soviet Union, Elie went to a dance in a nearby town. When he returned to his air base, he found only that it has been almost completely destroyed by a massive German air raid. The first thing he did was to go to Zhitomir to help his parents leave. They arrived in the Don region, where they settled among the Cossack population. When the front began to draw near the area where the Gekhtmans were living, the Cossacks, whose attitude toward the evacuees had been positive, began to threaten them, saying: "Soon the Germans will come and we will hang all you Yids!"
Meanwhile, in May 1942, Gekhtman was drafted into the Red Army and sent to a training camp. His baptism by fire was on the Don River in the summer of 1942. His unit was destroyed in battle by the enemy. Machine-gunner Gekhtman was wounded in the attempt to push the enemy back to the western side of the Don River. Gekhtman recalled that the morale in his unit was low – not only because the Red Army had suffered one defeat after another, but also due to the fact that many soldiers were Cossacks or Ukrainians from peasant families who had suffered under the Soviet regime and, therefore, had no desire to defend it. One day Elie's assistant machine-gunner, a Ukrainian named Petr Pronko, suggested that Elie desert. Pronko said that the Germans would not harm him and that the rumors that the Germans were shooting all the Jews were nonsense, just Soviet propaganda. Gekhtman responded by cursing Petr and rejecting his idea. Petr disappeared during the night. Gekhtman said: "I remember Pronko without hatred, even though he was a traitor and a defector. However, he did not take my weapons but left them to me. He could have killed me at night and come to the Germans as a hero, saying 'Germans, look at the documents, I killed a Jew'".1
In February and March of 1943, Gekhtman took part in the third battle of Kharkov, that was a disaster for the Red Army. In July 1943 he was seriously wounded. After being released from hospital in the fall of that year, he was assigned as a rifleman to the 2nd Baltic Front. He fought in western Russia (in the Nevel area), then in Latvia.
In 1944 Gekhtman volunteered to serve in a reconnaissance company despite the fact that the chances of being captured by the enemy were higher in reconnaissance than in the infantry. It is noteworthy that in his frontline biography Gekhtman, a barber by profession, never asked to be transferred from the trenches, i.e. from combat service, to serve as a military barber.
He ended the war in May 1945 in Liepaja, in western Latvia, after the surrender of the Wehrmacht's Courland Group.
After the war, Gekhtman settled in Riga, Latvia.
Elie's elder brother Barukh Gekhtman (born in 1921) was killed in August 1941 during the Red Army's retreat from Belorussia. His second brother Ziama (Zalman) Gekhtman (born in 1925) was drafted into the Red Army. His family later received a notice that he was missing in action. The fourth brother Vladimir was born in 1931 and, therefore, was too young to drafted. He survived the war.
From an interview, given by Gekhtman in 2009, about his motivation to serve in reconnaissance
"Question.: - So why did you decide to leave the infantry for divisional reconnaissance? […]
Answer.: "You have no idea how the infantry treated the Jews.
The constant talk about 'Yids in Tashkent', about filthy Jews doing staff work [far from the front].
When I [once] interrupted, they asked me: 'Why are you defending the Jews so much? Are you yourself a Yid, or what?'"
'Yes!' I replied.
'Don't try to lie to us: all the Jews are in Tashkent'
That's the way it was all the time ...
When I enlisted, after hearing my name Elia, the clerk, said that he did not know of such a name and wrote me down as Aleksei. My comrades in the company advised me to remove the letter "kh" from the surname, and to be registered as Hetman instead of Gekhtman so that I would appear to be the Ukrainian – Aleksei Hetman.
I did not agree. At the front when the remnants of the destroyed units were repeatedly merged into a single unit – a battalion or regiment, etc., it was possible, if you wanted, to be registered as [an ethnic] Russian or even as an Uzbek, - whatever you wanted. But I did not change my destiny[...]
After our encirclement [and my escape], when I was put into another battalion, one such case took place right in front of my eyes. We were lying in the trenches and the Germans were concentrating heavy, unbearable fire on our positions so that you couldn't raise your head. Next to me was lying a soldier, an elderly Jew from Odessa. The company commander appeared, took a close look at the soldier lying at the bottom of the trench, and gave him the following order: "Take a look at what is going on in the neutral zone, Jew mug!" The native of Odessa replied: "Why should I take a look? If I just stick out a small part of me, they will kill me!" - "I order you to!" - "O.k., are you happy?" - The Odessite raised his head slightly over the edge of the trench immediately got a bullet in the forehead and fell dead to the bottom of the trench. The company commander looked at the body and said: "One Yid less!" ... I can not convey to you in words what I felt at that moment ..."