Eliyahu Finkelshtein was born in 1923 in the village of Zawizów ,now Zavyziv, Ukraine, 28 kilometers east of the town of Równe, Poland (now Rivne, Ukraine) into the family of a shop owner. In the 1930s the boy lived in Równe, where he studied at the Hebrew-language Tarbut high school. With the Soviet annexation of Polish Volhynia, the Hebrew gymnasium was transformed into a Soviet Yiddish general school. Eliyahu graduated on June 21, 1941, the day before the start of Operation Barbarossa.
With the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, Eliyahu did not flee the village eastward because he did not want to leave his parents alone. On July 1, 1941, the German Army entered Zawizów. Finkelshtein's father Volf died in November 1941. In April 1942, the rest of the family was forced into the ghetto of Ostroh, south of the village. In the fall of 1942 Eliyahu succeeded in escaping from the ghetto; months of wandering through the forests of Volhynia and Polesia followed. In a combined stroke of cleverness and luck Eliyahu managed to obtain a Soviet uniform and pretend to be a Russian runaway soldier named Sergei Bondarchuk. Such an alias gave him a far better chance of surviving in the German interior than being identified as Jewish. In the winter he found work as a farmhand in a village and, thus, survived. In the spring of 1943 he joined some Soviet partisans – a unit of saboteurs that was headed for the vicinity of Zawizów and was in need of a person who knew the area. After the act of sabotage was carried out successfully, being grateful to Eliyahu, the saboteurs transferred him to the Soviet partisan regiment of Colonel Naumov. Only among the partisans did Finkelshtein reveal his Jewish identity.
In January 1944, Eliyahu's partisan unit met a Red Army unit that was fighting its way westward. On the day of their meeting the Red Army unit and Finkelshtein's partisan unit carried out a joint operation to capture the town of Bereźne, northeast of Równe. The town was defended by Ukrainian collaborationist forces, and the fighting was heavy. "It was there that I began to settle my own account with the [murderers]" – recalled Finkelshtein.1
The meeting between the partisans and the Red Army did not mean that the partisans would be merged with the Soviet army immediately. First of all, the former partisans were taken to a military camp and ordered to hand over their old weapons and to get new Soviet ones. Since the Soviet command wished to make use of the partisan experience, the command formed the partisans into a unit that was ordered to cross the frontline to Eastern Galicia and to carry out acts of sabotage at the oilfields there. Finkelshtein found himself again in enemy territory. There his unit took part in heavy fighting against the SS Halychchyna Division, a collaborationist formation of local Ukrainians within the German army. At the end of February 1944 the saboteur unit, that had lost many fighters, crossed the frontline back to the Soviet side. Finkelshtein was assigned to accompany a horse-cart transport to bring some heavy boxes to Kiev, to the headquarters of the Ukrainian Partisan Movement. Only in Kiev in March 1944 did he receive a Red Army uniform and was assigned to the 6th Cavalry Corps.
Finkelshtein recalled that, despite being a cavalryman, he had to fight as a foot soldier as often as a mounted one. He fought near Kovel, western Volhynia. Once his commander overheard him speaking with a German POW. Finkelshtein was summoned to the Special Department of his division. "Where do you know German from?" – "I don't know it. I speak Yiddish" – Finkelshtein replied. Nevertheless, he was included in a unit of mounted reconnaissance assigned to the 2nd Ukrainian Front. With the latter he fought in Bessarabia, Romania, eastern Hungary (the area of Debrecen), and in Slovakia. He noted that the battles in Hungary, beginning with the capture of Oradea Mare (which had been annexed to Hungary as Nagyvárad), were the hardest ones. Finkelshtein finished serving in the European theater of World War II in the vicinity of Prague. He wrote that on May 9, 1945 soldiers sat down to write letters to their families, but "I have no one to write to."2
The only military award that Guards Private Ilia Volfovich Finkilshtein (as his name was recorded by the Red Army) received was the medal For Courage.3
Despite the victory in Europe, Finkelshtein was not released from the Red Army. In the summer of 1945, together with other West-Ukrainian soldiers, he was transferred to the Far East, to fight Japan. The Soviets did not want to demobilize the soldiers drafted in Western Ukraine (former Eastern Poland) and regarded the Jew Finkelshtein as a West- Ukrainian. Eventually, in May 1947, he was demobilized. In December of the same year, Finkelshtein left the Soviet Union for Poland, and in 1948 he arrived in Israel, where he took part in the War of Independence as the member of a tank crew.
[According to Eliyahu Finkelshtein, Min hayom hahu vehalaa vehazman lo merape, Givatayim, 2007]
- 1. Eliyahu Finkelshtein, Min hayom hahu vehalaa vehazman lo merape, Givatayim, 2007, p. 46.
- 2. ibidem, p. 66.
- 3. Internet site "Podvig naroda", http://podvignaroda.ru/?#id=1103654074&tab=navDetailManCard