Mikhail Baitman was born in 1925 in a shtetl in northern Ukraine; in the early 1930s, the family moved to Kiev. Having completed seven classes of primary school, he entered the 5th Special Naval School. Baitman recalls that about a third of the cadets at the school were Jewish. In June 1941, with the beginning of the Soviet-German war, the military authorities in Kiev ordered the evacuation of all the cadets of these schools to the east. As a result, Mikhail continued his military training in Eastern Siberia. After the fall of Kiev to the Germans in September 1941, virtually all the naval cadets in his class were eager to go to the front instead of finishing their studies. They had their birth years "amended" from 1925 to 1923 (Baitman's wartime documents, and nominations for military awards in particular, give his birth year as 1923), and, wishing to be expelled from the naval school and be sent to the frontline, they decided to fail the exams on purpose. After this failure, several cadets, who were singled out by the commanders as "ringleaders of the mutiny" – with Baitman among them – were transferred to a reserve regiment. Its training camp, as Baitman described it, was more of a penal institution.
Nevertheless, after a month in this camp, Mikhail was assigned to a brigade of naval infantry, and, two weeks later, he took part in combat in the vicinity of Moscow, where the Red Army launched its counter-offensive. In a short time, the "rebels" were transferred to a scout company of the brigade, and underwent a special, albeit short, training course. Nevertheless, they continued to fight as common riflemen. Mikhail was wounded, and only after a month-long stay in hospital did he begin his service as a scout with a reconnaissance company of the 12th Guards Rifle Division. His principal task was to cross the front lines into German territory and capture enemy informers, bringing them to the Division headquarters. The task was extremely dangerous, and the mortality rate in the reconnaissance company was very high. Their depleting manpower was supplemented not only by former naval infantrymen, but also by "pardoned" criminals. The social profile of the company, coupled with the high-risk nature of its job, endowed it with a certain "outlaw" flavor, and its men acquired the reputation of thugs and cutthroats within the Division. This image was actively cultivated by the scouts themselves.
Baitman recalls an episode from 1945, when the division was in Germany:
"When we entered Germany, we had much fun there. Once, we met a group of German civilians, and the guys pointed at me and told them 'He is a Jude! Jude! Verstehn? Now he will schiessen you!' And the Germans, in anticipation of the 'execution', looked at me with horror, and we laughed ... On another occasion, I looked at myself in the mirror in an abandoned house, and indeed, I looked like a real bandit ".1
Baitman denies the existence of rampant antisemitism in his company. Initially, when he became a member of the reconnaissance unit, "some of the guys did not like the sound of my last name, but I was a bully and an impudent fellow, so I hit back immediately. I drank [vodka] just like everyone else, and I quickly fit into our 'merry band'. Physically, I was robust and very strong. Before the war, I had been a good gymnast, and, when the training began (as scouts, we would train for night raids and so on), I demonstrated my capabilities, and the last doubts about my fitness disappeared". He continues:
"I never heard any insults about my nationality [ethnicity] during the war. If someone had said the word "Yid" to me, I would have killed him immediately, on the spot. My nerves were strung to the limit… The only area in which, throughout the whole war, I felt the existence of a 'double standard' on the 'national question' was when it came to awards. Before each raid, we would be promised decorations if we could capture an informer… And when the scouts received their awards, 'I was passed over' several times. The rest of the group received military orders, but not me. The guys were embarrassed; they felt uncomfortable... Although I had been the commander of the group in this raid, personally taking the informer, I got nothing. ... After one such cases, I realized that 'military decorations were not for the Jews'. One of the higher-ups at the headquarters could not stand a name like Baitman."2
Nevertheless, toward the end of the war Baitman was awarded the Orders of the Red Star and of the Patriotic War, 1st class, as well as a number of medals.
In the same vein, Baitman was indifferent to the "preaching" of the political commissars, who exhorted the soldiers to fight valiantly.
"I personally did not need it; I was fighting for the Motherland and for Stalin, avenging the relatives killed by the Germans. The Germans had destroyed my whole family and demolished our house. My father, all of my uncles, and all of my eight cousins had died in battle. My grandmother had been murdered right outside our house, even before Babii Yar; they just dragged her out and shot her on the doorstep... So why did I need the commissars' propaganda? I did not join the Party during the war".3
Toward the end of the war, Baitman became somewhat disillusioned with the Soviet slogans. He told the interviewer in 2008: "We became beasts during the war thanks to the Germans alone. They were 'outstanding teachers,' and, when it came to killing or raping, we took an example from them!.. For more than three years, we had seen more than our fair share of their savage, cruel, inhuman, evil deeds. We had completely forgotten such concepts as 'the German working class' and slogans such as 'the German common working people are waiting to be delivered from Hitlerism'... Moreover, as a Jew, I didn’t have an ounce of pity for them. There was nothing but hatred and the desire to kill them all, down to the last man... I'm giving you the plain honest truth. Whether or not you are going to publish it ... that's up to you".
In 1944, in Latvia, Baitman was seriously shell-shocked. His mother, Shifra Baitman, received a death notice for him. However, Mikhail survived, and, after being released from hospital, he continued his combat service in Germany.
In 1946, Mikhail Baitman was discharged from the army and returned to Kiev. There, he worked in the criminal police and received a legal education. During the 1960s-70s, he served as an investigator at the city prosecutor's office, and later as head of the Investigation Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kiev. He retired in 1978, having attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel of police, but continued to practice law.
In 1991, Mikhail Baitman moved to Israel, settling in Bat Yam.