The brief life of Iov (Job) Begelfer is shrouded in legend, with the truth being intertwined with exaggerations and folklore. He was born in Odessa in 1918 or 1919, into the family of a stevedore, and his birth name was Iov (or, according to other sources, Iona) Behelfer. He, too, began his career as a port stevedore. His friends recalled him as a very strong young man "with fists weighing a pood", who allegedly could kill a man with a blow of his fist. He acquired the reputation of a roughneck in his area of Odessa.
According to an essay by A. Verbitskii1 prepared for the Moscow-based Yiddish newspaper Einikayt, in the late 1930s Begelfer worked at the "André Marty" shipyard in Odessa, and simultaneously attended the Industrial Institute (University), intending to be an engineer. When the Soviet-German war broke out in June 1941, he was a soldier of the 161st Rifle Regiment attached to the South-Western Front and tasked with defending Odessa from the Romanian and German troops. In the Red Army, he was registered as Iakov Begelfer.
In August 1941, during a melee fight with the Romanians, Begelfer's ammunition ran out, but he went on to kill twenty two enemy soldiers with his bayonet and the butt of his rifle. The Odessa daily Chernomorskaia kommuna [lit. The Black Sea Commune] dedicated an article to his "heroic deed" on August 26, 1941, and even the central Soviet daily Pravda wrote: "Odessa glorifies the name of her son, Iov Iosifovich Begelfer. With a bayonet and rifle butt, carving out a path for himself, he destroyed 22 fascists in battle…" (September 11, 1941). Following this fight, Iakov Begelfer was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.
Somewhat later, Begelfer and three of his comrades were ordered to destroy a Romanian machine-gun nest. Having carried out their task, the four soldiers realized that they were surrounded by the Romanians, and had no chance of breaking out of the encirclement. While the spirits of his comrades flagged, Begelfer came up with a plan of rescue: all four raised their hands in a gesture of surrender. When the Romanians, feeling confident and fearless, approached them, all four Soviet soldiers quickly threw hand grenades at them, with each soldier aiming in a different direction. They were then able to escape through the four resulting "gaps" in the ring of enemies.
In November 1941, after Odessa had been abandoned by the Soviet forces, Begelfer was transferred to the defense of Sevastopol, in the Crimea. There, he was seriously wounded in January 1942, and transported by sea to the Caucasus. After recuperating at a hospital, he took part in the Battle of Stalingrad. There, Begelfer showed himself a brilliant scout.
According to the essay prepared for Einikayt, Begelfer was awarded five military orders. The extant military documents corroborate only one of them, the Order of the Red Banner, awarded in winter 1941-42.
In 1944 Iakov Begelfer was declared missing. His ultimate fate is unknown.
- 1. GARF 8114-1-176, sh. 195-196