Isaak Birzha was born in 1921 in Odessa. His father was a tailor at the local opera theater. In 1939, after some hesitation concerning his future career, Isaak entered the Moscow Military School for Technical Tools of Reconnaissance. In 1940, this military school closed down, and Isaak was transferred to the Rostov-on-Don Artillery School. Upon graduating from it in May 1941, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and sent to the area of Lvov, in the newly annexed Eastern Galicia, where he was to serve as the commander of a battery (artillery company) of 76-mm cannons.
A month later, the Soviet-German War broke out, and Isaak took part in combat from its first day. Together with the entire Red Army, he retreated eastward with his battery, losing one cannon after another. In fall 1941, Birzha was transferred to the defense of Moscow, now as the commander of a riflemen company. In December 1941, during the Soviet counter-offensive near Moscow, when Isaak was already the commander of a battalion, he was wounded, and spent several months in hospital. In the spring of 1942, the convalescing Isaak Birzha was appointed a teacher at an artillery academy. However, in the fall of that year he requested to be allowed to return to frontline duty. This time, he was sent to the Leningrad Front as the commander of a 122-mm mortar battalion, the 568th Mortar Regiment. He took part in the battles to lift the siege of Leningrad, and fought in the Baltic region, and then in Belorussia and Poland. In 1945, he saw action in Germany itself, taking part in the Battle of Berlin. In February 1945, he was seriously shell-shocked. In 1946, Birzha was discharged from the army, and returned to Odessa.
Isaak Birzha was awarded the Order of the Red Star; the Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd class, the Order of the Red Banner, and a number of medals. His highest rank, by the end of the war, was that of captain. In all his military documents, he is registered as Birzh, rather than Birzha. In all likelihood, it was he himself who altered the spelling of his last name, since the variant Birzha would have sounded funny to Russian ears. The name is actually derived from Biržai (Birzh in Yiddish), a town in Lithuania.
Nevertheless, on one occasion during his frontline service, Isaak Birzha was confronted with a case of "mild" antisemitism. A fellow officer said to him:
"What kind of name do you have? Isaak Shliomovich! [Birzha's first name and patronymic] In the Red Army, this sounds wrong!" Birzha told him: "That's how I was born, and that's how I will die" 1.
A less mild case of antisemitism occurred in the late 1940s, when Captain Birzha's application to study at an artillery academy was rejected.
Isaak Birzha graduated from the Odessa Institute of Food and Refrigeration Industry, the department of winemaking. For the remainder of his life in the Soviet Union, he worked as a vintner – "like Noah," as he himself put it.
In 1985, Isaak Birzha immigrated to the USA and settled in Los Angeles.
- 1. [O.93/2987]