Isai Shakher was born in 1917 in Tula, south of Moscow, into a traditional Jewish family. Isai's parents were born in West Belorussia. They were resettled in central Russia during World War I. Despite their living in an almost totally Russian environment in Tula, the family spoke Yiddish and kept kosher. Isai received his basic Jewish education from a private melamed (religious tutor), even though that was looked on unfavorably by the Soviet authorities. Furthermore, since West Belorussia, where Isai's parents had been born, then belonged to Poland, they were regarded with suspicion for being "foreign-born".
In 1939 Isai was drafted into the Red Army and sent to a school for medical orderlies, that was located in Kiev. The year of his study in Kiev was a bright memory for Isai. His commander was Jewish and occasionally gave Isai tickets to the Yiddish theater (sometimes also to Russian theaters), which he could visit in his free time.
Upon graduating from the school for medical orderlies, with the rank of sergeant, Isai was assigned to an artillery regiment that was deployed in West Ukraine, which had been recently annexed by the USSR from Poland.
In June 1941, Isai's father Iakov traveled to the West Belorussian shtetl where he had been born in order to visit his relatives whom he had not seen for almost 20 years. On June 22, the Soviet-German war began, and all trace of Iakov was lost in the German occupied Belorussia.
After Isai had participated in the fighting in West Ukraine for about a week, his regiment began to retreat. On some days his unit had to march about 60 kilometers (37 miles). In August 1941 near Kiev, his regiment was encircled by the Germans, and Shakher was captured. Although he and several of his fellow POWs managed to escape, they were caught by Ukrainian peasants and handed over to the Germans. After a second escape attempt, Isai was transferred to Smela (south of Kiev), where he heard the word "ghetto" for the first time. The ghetto there was located in the town close to the POW camp. Having looked at the ghetto, the POW Shakher realized that he had a better chance of surviving as a POW who was not recognized as a Jew than if he were identified as such and put into the ghetto.
In 1942, Shakher was transported to Germany, where he was imprisoned in several POW camps. In 1943, when he was in a labor camp on the French-German border, some an inspection commission came and began to register the prisoners. Shakher succeeded in passing himself off as Aleksandr Shakhin, a Russian from Tula.
In April 1945 Shakher was on the verge of death from starvation when the Americans began to bomb the camp and the guards ran away. Soon after that Studebakers full of American soldiers entered the camp and liberated Isai Shakher.
After treatment in an American hospital, Shakher asked to be repatriated to the Soviet Union. There he was sent to a camp in central Ukraine, where he underwent eight "screenings." At one of them, he remembers, he had to convince his Soviet interrogators that he was not responsible for the capture of Kiev by the enemy. Until 1946 Shakher again had to work in a labor camp, this time a Soviet one. In the fall of 1946 he was allowed to return to his native city of Tula.
In 1948, Shakher moved to Moscow to study at the Motor Transport and Road Institute. Despite the fact that he successfully passed the exams, he was not accepted because of the suspicions aroused by the three years he had spent in enemy captivity. In addition, Stalin's postwar anti-Jewish campaign was starting. During the following years, Shakher worked as a turner at the Zenit hardware factory. He retired at the age of 72. On Saturdays he usually attended synagogue and was a member of the permanent minyan [quorum] there.
Isai Shakher died in 2010.