Iakov Finkelberg was born in 1921 in Loiev, southeast Belorussia. In the early 1920s, his family moved to the Crimea, where, on the initiative of the Soviet government and with the support of the American JDC, Jews could receive a plot of land and become farmers. In the 1930s, his parents joined a kolkhoz (farmers’ cooperative) in the Larindorf agricultural district. In 1938, having finished nine grades of Yiddish school, Iakov began his 10th-grade studies at a Russian school in Larindorf – because, that year, the authorities closed down the Yiddish schools, or else “re-organized” them into Russian ones.
In April 1941, Iakov was drafted into the Red Army. His infantry division was stationed in the vicinity of Lvov, in the recently annexed eastern Galicia. A month later, the Soviet-German War broke out, and Finkelberg took part in combat in the area. On the eighth day of the war, he was wounded and evacuated to a hospital in Kiev. However, several days later, when the Germans launched the operation to occupy Kiev, Finkelberg, who had not yet recovered, was assigned to the 70th Tank Regiment and sent to eastern Volhynia, where he continued to serve. In September, he was shell-shocked and taken prisoner by the Germans. Unlike many other Jewish POWs, Iakov was not shot on the spot by his captors, because he had managed to destroy his ID documents and told the Germans that he was “half-Russian, half Karaite”.
In July 1943, Iakov was able to escape from a labor camp in Ukraine, and, after a long eastward trek, he joined a Soviet partisan unit. There, Finkelberg disclosed his Jewish identity. He did not stay long with the partisans, because the area was soon liberated by the Red Army. Some of the partisans agreed to continue their activities in the enemy rear, west of the frontline, but Iakov rejected this offer, and was attached to the reconnaissance department of the 47th Rifle Corps. In mid-1944, Finkelberg, who spoke German well, began to serve as a translator in the reconnaissance department of the 280th Rifle Division, which later became the 121st Guards Rifle Division. With these units, he saw action in western Ukraine, and later in Poland; he took part in the Battle of Berlin in April-May 1945, and met V-E Day in Prague.
After the war was over, Finkelberg served as a translator in a camp for German POWs. As a Jew who had survived the war, he deemed it his duty to expose war criminals, especially those who had killed Jews. He was shocked to discover that the number of such murderers among the German POWs was very high.
Guards Sergeant-Major (starshina) Iakov Finkelberg was awarded two Orders of the Red Star and several medals. His brother Nukhim (Nahum) was killed in action in East Prussia in January 1945.
After his discharge from the Red Army, Finkelberg and his family (parents and two siblings) lived in Simferopol in the Crimea. In 1997, following the example of his son Aleksandr, Iakov Finkelberg immigrated to Israel. He lived in Netanya.