Grigorii (Hirsh) Mats was born in 1920 in Poltava in Ukraine. His father was a rabbi in Poltava and an uncle of Grigorii was a rabbi in the United States. His older brother Eli studied in a yeshiva and was also ordained as a rabbi. Later Eli graduated from an institute and became an engineer. He ended World War II in Berlin as commander of an artillery regiment.
Grigorii completed a regular school and then a technical school. In 1940 he was drafted into the Red Army. From the first days of the war between the USSR and Germany he participated in combat. In August 1941 he was seriously wounded. After recovering, he was sent to study at an artillery officers' school.
In March 1943 an artillery platoon commanded by Lieutenant Mats destroyed 9 bunkers and captured and, despite several enemy counterattacks, held an important bridgehead until the arrival of the main Soviet forces. For this operation Mats was awarded the Order of the Red Star. In October 1943 Mats was promoted to senior lieutenant. It is strange that in his award certificate Mats was listed as a Lithuanian.
On December 1, 1943 Mats, who was then commander of a battery of anti-tank weapons, was ordered to have his battery provide cover for a highway to prevent a tank breakthrough in the area of the Ukrainian city of Cherkassy. His artillerymen succeeded in holding back the enemy: they destroyed 14 tanks and 5 armored transport vehicles.
It was reported that Mats had been killed in action. The military council of the army to which his unit belonged issued a special announcement about the death of Mats. His mother was called to the military commission office, where she heard condolences and the expression of gratitude for having raised a hero. On May 18, 1944 a decree was issued about the posthumous award to Mats of the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. The award certificate noted that he had died in the arms of his soldiers although, in fact, his body had not been found.
What had happened was that German medics had carried the wounded Mats from the battlefield and sent him to a hospital for prisoners of war. In the hospital in Uman a German doctor suspected that Mats was a Jew but he had already been going under the last name of Mamedov. However, another doctor, who was Polish, noted that he did look like a Tatar. From Uman Mats was sent to a camp in Przemyśl. From there, via several transit points, he ended up in Majdanek. There he was saved by a miracle. He spent most of his time there in the hospital, seeing the camp from the window of his barrack, where he succeeded in surviving until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterwards, he was first in hospital in Lublin and then was transferred to Kiev. He learned that he had been named a Hero of the Soviet Union from a letter from his mother. In July 1945 an article about Mats was published in the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee's Eynikayt.
After the war he graduated from the Institute of Law in Kharkov and for the rest of his active life he worked as a legal consultant. Grigorii Mats died in 1977.
Article about Grigorii Mats
In Oyzer Holdes's article "From Death to Life: The Story about the Hero of the Soviet Union Hirsh Mats," published in the Yiddish newspaper Eynikayt on July 19, 1945 Mats is quoted as follows in regard to Majdanek:
"What is to be said here? Through the window I saw a huge yard, barracks, and a tall pipe from which there wafted a column of smoke – that was the factory of death. It worked without halt, day and night. All of us knew that sooner or later we would be dragged there…. I saw how 7- or 8-year-old Jewish children were dragging heavy bundles of dirty laundry to the laundry barrack. Those kids with wax-colored faces and arms as thin as sticks, exhausted, in rags, were carrying out the heaviest kinds of work. And when they had no strength left, they were dispatched to 'the bathhouse'…."
Oyzer Holdes, "Fun toyt lebedik: an emese geshikhte vegn dem held fun sovetn-farband Tsvi-Hirsh Mats" (From Death to Life: The Story about the Hero of the Soviet Union Zvi-Hirsh Mats), Eynikayt, July 19, 1945.