Leonid Vasserman was born in 1922 in Ocniţa, the province of Bessarabia, Romania. His father Kisl (Yekutiel) was, in effect, a déclassé who made his living and provided for his family by taking odd jobs (a peddler, an assistant in his relative’s shop, etc.) and through his relatives’ support. His mother Hannah was a seamstress. During the Russian Civil War (until 1918, Bessarabia was part of Russia), Kisl supported the Communists. As a result, in 1918 he was arrested and imprisoned by the Romanians, the new masters of Bessarabia. The time spent in jail, and the torture he endured there, ruined Kisl’s health, and he died in 1929, being not yet 40. At the age of six, Leonid began to attend a cheder, and at the age of seven he went to an elementary school. Leonid finished four classes of elementary schooling and another four classes at a local gymnasium; however, he was unable to continue his studies at a gymnasium in the larger town of Bălți, since the local teachers refused to admit a Jew.
In 1936, Leonid went to Bucharest and completed a course for radio technicians taught by the Jewish community in the Romanian capital. In 1937-39, he worked at a Tungsram factory and could provide for his family back in Ocniţa. In September 1939, World War II began, and Leonid realized that such a large state as Russia (the Soviet Union) would inevitably become even larger in this war, most probably by annexing his native Bessarabia. Being the son of a former “communist”, he was pro-Soviet (as were many Bessarabian Jews at the time), and in late 1939 he returned to Ocniţa. In June 1940, Bessarabia was indeed annexed to the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, the first people to shatter Leonid’s rosy view of the USSR as a “workers’ paradise” were the Soviet functionaries, many of them Jewish, who came to the newly formed Soviet Republic of Moldavia to “Sovietize” it. In particular, they told Leonid that the “bourgeois elements” would soon be deported to Siberia and elsewhere. In June 1941, less than two weeks before the German invasion of the USSR, the Soviet authorities did indeed deport the “unreliable” citizens of Ocniţa, both Jews and non-Jews, eastward. Most of the deportees were affluent citizens and Zionists. Leonid’s uncle, who had previously aided his father, was among them, and he eventually died in exile.
On June 22, 1941, the German (and Romanian) invasion began, and Vasserman was drafted into a railroad militia, whose job was to guard the Ocniţa railroad junction. This assignment saved Leonid’s family and other Jews from Ocniţa. The Soviet authorities had closed down the “old” border between Bessarabia and the Soviet Union, and whoever wanted to leave Bessarabia had to obtain a permit to cross this border. When the Vassermans came to the Soviet office to ask for such a permit, they were unexpectedly told: “You lived with the Romanians for twenty-two years, so you will live with them a little more.” However, Leonid, who wore a quasi-military uniform and had the certificate of a railway worker, managed to push the Jews of Ocniţa who wanted to be evacuated into a train that was about to depart, and the evacuees arrived in the Stalingrad Region in September 1941. In October that year, Leonid was drafted into the Red Army.
Leonid Vasserman was sent to a school for machine gunners, which he finished in May 1942 in the rank of second lieutenant. The situation in the area of the Volga-Don isthmus was critical: The Germans had come close to the Don River, and were preparing to cross it, so Second Lieutenant Vasserman was transferred to the defense of the Don and of the major city in the area, Stalingrad. After being wounded and spending some time in hospital, he was sent to attend the “Vystrel Course” (an officer training course), which had been evacuated from the vicinity of Moscow to the Urals. After completing the course in fall 1943, Vasserman was supposed to be dispatched to the front lines. However, the military authorities decided instead to send him to the Seltsy military camps southeast of Moscow, where the Romanian “Tudor Vladimirescu” Division, which was to fight on the side of the Red Army against the Wehrmacht, was being formed. Then, the authorities changed their mind once again, and, instead of joining the pro-Soviet Romanian division, Vasserman was attached to the 126th Rifle Division, which at this time was busy liberating the industrial Donbass region in southeast Ukraine. As deputy commander of a battalion in this division, Lieutenant Vasserman took part in the liberation of the Crimea. In a valiant move, his battalion took over not only the town of Armiansk, opening the way to the Crimea, but also the village of Piatikhatka, five kilometers southeast of it; thus, the battalion found itself in a kind of peninsula surrounded by German forces on three sides, but managed to hold it. In April-May 1944, Vasserman participated in the liberation of Sevastopol (for which he was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd class), where he was shell-shocked. His division was then transferred to the 1st Baltic Front, and he saw action in Lithuania (where he was wounded and awarded the Order of the Red Banner). He ended the war in East Prussia, where he was seriously wounded. Thus, Senior Lieutenant Vasserman met VE Day in hospital.
After his discharge from the army, Vasserman married and returned to Bessarabia, where he worked in radio broadcasting. In the mid-1950s, he settled in Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad); he worked at the local Polytechnical Institute (University), eventually becoming a doсent (associate professor) there. In 1992, the Vassermans moved to Israel.
Rampant antisemitism on the front lines.
On the eve of the Red Army offensive in the Crimea in February 1944, Vasserman’s battalion was transferred to the 366th Regiment of the same division. The regimental commander was Colonel Mamontov. Vasserman recalls:
“I was warned that he was a wicked man and, worst of all, that he had an intense dislike for the Jews… I paid no mind to the warning: We Jews are always afraid of everything, and attach too much importance to the national question.”
On April 8, 1944, the Red Army assault on the first line of the German defense in the Crimea began. After a heavy artillery bombardment, Vasserman’s battalion overcame the first line and entered the town of Armiansk at the northern end of the Crimean Peninsula. After the takeover of Armiansk, the Germans continued to retreat, and Vasserman’s battalion advanced as far as the village of Piatikhatka, where the second line of defense of the German army lay. Here, the men realized that the battalion was surrounded by German forces on three sides, and that their situation was critical. Colonel Mamontov then called Vasserman and ordered him to retreat to their initial positions.
“I answered that we would, of course, comply with the order, but not before reinforcements came to hold our position. Until then, we won’t budge. Abandoning our positions to the enemy would be a crime. The enraged Mamontov began to yell: ‘You, Chaim, who are you trying to pick a fight with?… This is an order from the staff of the division, and it is not your place, you and your hymie’s head, to dispute our deployment.’ There was no point in further talk, so I tore the wire, as though it were cut by a bullet.”
Vasserman spoke to the other officers, and they supported him. All of a sudden, the reconnaissance team that Vasserman had sent out brought three captured German soldiers as informants. Vasserman, who spoke German, talked to them – and they agreed to lead the Red Army reconnaissance team to Piatikhatka through a gap in the mine field. Vasserman went along with them, and in the central bunker they captured a German officer and a tactical map of the area.
“I took up the telephone and called the divisional HQ. … ‘I am in Piatikhatka, give me Mamontov.’ The latter took up the phone and began, as usual, to yell: ‘I will strip off your Yid’s skin together with your shoulder-straps. Go back right now.’ – ‘Yes’ I said, ‘But there is an important new development – a German tactical map.’ ‘I don’t believe you, but I will send [the HQ chief] Kholodkov. ’ In half an hour, Kholodkov came up with a squad of riflemen… ‘To hell with you! – [Kholodkov said], stay where you are’.”
At dawn, the Germans launched their counterattack, and only the reinforcements that arrived later saved the remnants of the battalion.
“In the morning of April 17, Mamontov convened the whole command staff of the regiment for a meeting. He flew in on a black horse, dismounted, and began: ‘You are brave fellows! We all have fought valiantly for the liberation of the Crimea. But I want to give special thanks to the Second Battalion and to its commander, Vasserman. He has done his job competently, despite defying our orders. He stuck to his guns and won.… But here is Kalmykov [a Jewish officer who arrived too late in Piatikhatka with his unit of reinforcements, because he had taken a wrong turn] sitting beside him… Here he is sitting, a despised coward. How was it possible? I sent him to rescue Vasserman, but he hid somewhere and came out only when everything was over.… Silence, you, dog, or I will rip your shoulder straps and awards!’… And then, he whipped out his pistol and shot Kalmykov right in front of all the officers. Later, Mamontov stood before a military tribunal,… and the investigation showed that he had killed eleven Jewish officers from the time of the Battle of Stalingrad until the Crimean Operation. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to serving in a penal battalion.”1
- 1. [YVA, VT/7938]