Israel Machtey was born in 1921 in Stołpce, Poland (now Stoubtsy, Belarus). His father Motl (Mordechai Iakov), a bookkeeper, was a member of the Po'alei Zion party and for some time headed the local branch of Po'alei Zion. Israel studied at a Tarbut school, but after the third grade he received an "unsatisfactory grade" for Polish. He knew only Yiddish, while the adults in his family spoke Russian or mixed Belorussian and Russian with some Polish. Consequently, his parents transferred him to a school with instruction in Polish in order to improve his ability in that language. At the age of 13, Israel was accepted to a gymnasium (high school). There he refused to write on the Sabbath, but after some pressure on the part of the teachers, he gave up keeping the commandment not to write on Sabbaths or holidays. At this time, he joined Hashomer Hatzair, a leftist Zionist party, which competed with his father's Po'alei Zion party. After the Soviet occupation of Stołpce in September 1939, the local cell of Hashomer Hatzair burned all its documents. As a result Israel was not arrested by the new rulers, who regarded his party as anti-Soviet.
In July 1939, two months before the start of World War II, student of the 11th grade Israel Machtey was drafted into the so-called Przysposobienie Wojskowe, the Polish organization for preparation for future military service. Some days before September 1, 1939 he returned from a training camp to his native town. On September 1 war began. Within a short time, Stołpce was occupied by the Soviets. In 1940, Machtey entered the Minsk Medical Institute (University), but in April 1941 he was drafted once more, this time into the Red Army. His military training was in the Urals. In June 1941, his 666th Rifle Regiment was transferred to Belorussia, to the area of Vitebsk, where he faced the German attack on the Soviet Union in the same month. As a medical student, Machtey was included in the medical department (sanchast') of the regiment. Having less than a year of medical training, Israel and his comrades, who were no more physicians than he was, had to establish a field hospital for the regiment and to provide first aid to the wounded. At the same time, they had to dig trenches and to carry out other soldierly tasks.
On July 7, during the fighting for Vitebsk, Machtey and his comrades were sent to render first aid to wounded soldiers on the front lines and to transport the seriously wounded ones to the hospital. There they were encircled by the Germans and captured. The German soldier who carried out a body search of the POWs identified Machtey as a Jew – not because of his appearance but because of his perfect command of German. Their final dialogue was the following: "Are you Jewish?" – he asked. "Yes" – was the reply. "You can regard yourself as already shot to death" [Kannst dich betrachten als Tot-erschossen]", the soldier said. 1 However, Machtey was not shot due to his medical profession. In one of the POW camps he was subsequently imprisoned in, he managed to burn his documents except for his student card, where his ethnicity was not indicated. After altering his student card, he became Sidor Makhteiev, a Turkmen by ethnicity. His main conclusion was that he would never again speak perfect German. For example, when during a march westward in a column of five hundred Soviet POWs, he was asked whether he was a "Jude?" – Israel always answered: "Niks" instead of "Nein."
This ruse, however, did not save him: some days later, he was transferred to a "ghetto column," which consisted of several dozen Jewish POWs. This time Israel saved himself in a more active way: one night, he snuck out of the Jewish part of a temporary POW camp to the general part.
As noted above, the main factor that saved Machtey's life in captivity was his medical profession. In various POW camps that he went through he served as an "Unterarzt", an assistant physician. Despite the virtual lack of medicines, he had to treat everything from wounds to typhus.
In 1943 Machtey was transferred to Eastern Prussia where, along with other POWs, he was used as a farmhand. It was only in the fall of 1944, when the Red Army was close to Eastern Prussia, that he was able to serve as a doctor, while continuing to work in POW camps.
In January 1945, during the evacuation of the POW camps from Eastern Prussia, Machtey managed to escape from the column of prisoners. Several of the escapees, including Machtey, presented themselves to the advancing Soviet troops as partisans and, under this pretext, they succeeded in being included in a Red Army unit that entered Prussia. Machtey's fighting in the Red Army was short: in February he was arrested by the Special Department, interrogated, transferred to the NKVD (precursor of the KGB), and then deported to Siberia.
Machtey's family survived the war. Despite the Soviet annexation of Eastern Poland in 1939, the Soviet authorities treated the annexed territories as foreign ones and the former Soviet-Polish border was closed before the residents of these areas. In the summer of 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, thousands of refugees from the west, mainly Jews, were unable to cross this border eastward and were killed by the Nazis. The Machtey family, including Israel's parents, his brother, and sister did succeed in crossing the "old border" -- due to the cowardice of the Soviet guards who abandoned their post at the border during a German air raid. The Makhtey family lived in Western Siberia during the war. In 1946, when Israel Machtey was freed from a Soviet camp, he reunited with his family. The family repatriated to Poland and, via that country, moved on to Austria and Germany. In 1949, with his parents, siblings, and his young wife, Machtey succeeded in reaching Israel, where he worked as a physician.
[According to his book of memoirs H.Sh.Y.: Halom – Shevi – Yoman (trilogiya). Raanana: Docostory, 2004.]
- 1. Yisrael Machtey, H.Sh.Y.: Halom – Shevi – Yoman (trilogiya). Raanana: Docostory, 2004, p. 55.