Ian Kaplan was born in 1924 in Belorussia, but shortly afterwards his family moved to the town of Zhukovka, in western Russia. In Zhukovka Ian had just completed nine grades of a ten-year school when the Soviet-German war began in June 1941.
Kaplan's baptism by fire took place in August 1941, when Ian was only 17. Like other Zhukovka school students, he was mobilized to dig anti-tank trenches in the vicinity of Smolensk. On August 1, a young lieutenant came to them. He lined up all the young people and asked for volunteers from those who knew how to shoot a rifle -- to liquidate an enemy airborne landing unit that was operating in the vicinity. The lieutenant took 30 volunteers, including Kaplan to a field and gave them rifles and bullets and sent them, without any military training and in civilian clothes – to repulse the enemy unit. Kaplan recalled that the whole operation was conducted in a most incompetent and stupid way. Many of the seventeen-year-old volunteers were killed in the first clash. Kaplan was wounded. He noted that it was that operation that resulted in his disillusionment with the Soviet regime and its attitude to human life. 1
Soon after this first engagement, Ian and his family were evacuated to the Urals. In the town where the family settled Kaplan went to the conscription office and requested to be sent to the front lines. After he was rejected as being too young, he did not attempt to volunteer again. "After that one day of warfare that I experienced near Smolensk," he noted," I no longer wanted to be sent to the front".
However, in August 1942, the then 18-year- old Kaplan was drafted into the Red Army and sent to a school for machine-gunners. There the young cadet encountered antisemitism, as depicted in the following account:
"My first platoon commander, Lieutenant Kramarenko, was a nice and kind person, a Don Cossack, a daredevil, and we loved him. […] We had to learn to ride horseback. Why would future machine-gunners [...] need to ride? However, following our commanders' whim, we learned this even if I could not master all the tricks of being a cavalryman. Kramarenko lined us up and said: 'You will see how I will make a good Cossack [even] out of this Yid [zhid]!' In the morning, he approached me and said: 'Sorry for the word 'Yid', it's just the way everyone in the Don region talks. I didn't mean to offend you," and then he shook my hand." 2
However, there were examples of much worse antisemitism than that.
After four months of training, Junior Lieutenant Kaplan was sent to the front, assigned to the 32th Rifle Division as a platoon commander. At the beginning of 1943, the division fought in the area of Sukhinichi – Duminichi, in western Russia. Kaplan referred to the destruction of human life there as a meat grinder. In February 1943, he was seriously shell shocked. After a long stay in hospital, Lieutenant Kaplan returned to the frontlines as a company commander. He continued to fight in Belorussia, in the area north of Vitebsk. There, in December 1943, his entire battalion was wiped out by the Germans. Only three men survived, including Kaplan, who was seriously injured. By mistake, a document reporting his death in combat was sent to his mother.
Kaplan's was wounded again in 1944. He concluded that his survival was due either to a miracle or to the skill of the military surgeon who treated him. Kaplan was released from combat duty and sent to Lithuania, which has just been captured by the Red Army, to induce young (and reluctant) Lithuanians to join the Red Army. He ended the war as a military training instructor at his former school in his native Zhukovka. Kaplan continued to work in the same capacity in the postwar period. Subsequently, he graduated from a pedagogical institute and became the principal of his school.
Kaplan was awarded several military orders and medals, but all of them (except for one order) were stolen during his last stay in military hospital. His attempt to have his military awards restored to him according to his military records failed. A clerk in the office in Moscow where he went to request the restoration of his orders and medals said: "You can buy new ones in Tashkent [i.e. in the deep rear in Central Asia]".
An almost deadly outburst of antisemitism, also connected with the machine-gunners' school
As Kaplan recalled:
"We had cross-country skiing [at the machine-gunners' school] with full combat equipment. In my platoon there was a cadet named Dikhel, with a weak heart, who looked like a skeleton covered with skin. This sick person was apparently drafted into the army because the enlistment office was having difficulty meeting its quota of recruits. We went cross-country skiing. After five kilometers, Dikhel fell into the snow and could not get up. I went up to him and took his bag and Cadet Donets […] took Dikhel's rifle, but the cadet could still not get up. Suddenly, the commander of another company rushed up and yelled 'Get up, you motherfucker!' and struck hit Dikhel on the back with a stick. I said to him: 'Comrade Lieutenant, it's not for me to tell you this and it's not for you to hear it from me, but what are you doing? Why are you beating him? You are a commander of the Red Army, aren't you ashamed?' He replied: 'Shut up! Do you want to be sent to a punishment company?' and he cursed me. Then he hit Dikhel again... Twenty more cadets approached. Suddenly this lieutenant stared at Dikhel's face and asked: 'What is his nationality?' I responded: 'What does that matter to you?'. The lieutenant almost jumped out of his skin and said: 'I asked a question! Answer it!' I said: 'He is a Jew. And so am I.' Donets, who had concealed his identity and had been registered as an ethnic Russian, also said to the lieutenant – 'And I'm a Jew too!' Another cadet, a pure Russian guy, said: 'Lieutenant, what the devil do you care about his nationality?' He [the lieutenant] shut up for a while, just staring at us with hatred. I said: 'Listen, you louse of a commander, even though I don't want to be sent to a punishment company because of such shit, we can just tear you to pieces right now!" He grabbed for his holster but we piled on top of him ... Suddenly, out of nowhere, our company commander Mikhailov appeared and stopped things from going any further. [Subsequently], he 'hushed up' this matter [...]
I was summoned by the Komsomol boss of the school and told not to raise a scandal. He promised that this lieutenant would be punished by the head of the school. Dikhel was sent to a hospital but I do not know his fate. […]
[Later] the chief of the General Physical Training Department of the school called me and proposed that I stay at the school as an instructor in physical training. I understood very well that he was offering me – no more and no less than life ... since I knew what awaited me at the front. However, at that moment I recalled the incident with Dikhel and I could imagine how I would have to exchange smiles with that lieutenant if I met him so I said, 'No, I want to go to the front.' The head of the GPT Department said confidentially in an effort to be of help 'Think it over well, cadet. At the front, you will soon become a fertilizer for kolkhoz fields.' Before I was sent from the school to the front, he turned to me again and said: 'If you change your mind, write us from your unit and we will call you back to the school."
Antisemitism at the front
Throughout his interview of 2006, Ian Kaplan attempted to downplay the significance of ethnic prejudice in the Red Army at the front (In his words: "Young boys who were brought up under Soviet rule were in the great majority internationalists"). However, he does cite several instances of frontline antisemitism, such as the following:"One private fought along with me. He was like a shameless fellow that always grabs for himself the first fat piece and is the last to be struck by a bullet. He fought in our company for quite a long time, about three months. It turned out that I saved him twice in battle and once from being sent to a punishment company. On one occasion, we were taken to the second defense line. In the evening nine men, the remnants of a machine-gun company, were sitting by a fire cooking something in a cauldron. I said to the soldiers: 'Soon we will have something tasty to gobble down, just wait a bit. I am going to pick up an extra ration from the sergeant-major.' I returned and heard the shameless fellow chortling with joy, quoting out loud from a German leaflet: 'The Jew shoots around the corner from a crooked gun, sleeps in the rear in Tashkent with the wives of front-line soldiers, and looks in the newspaper "Pravda" for his name on the list of those who received [military] awards.' I approached the fire and the shameless one exclaimed with joy: 'Now let's eat!' I replied: "You bastard, you'll wipe your mug with your greatcoat, instead of eating! Get out of this company before I shoot you!' […] how could he read that German bullshit out loud? ... And I heard more than once of such things during the war..."