Naum Karas was born in 1923 in Simferopol, the Crimea. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Melitopol, southeastern Ukraine, which was their original home city. His father Isaak worked in the state trade, while his mother Revekka was a musician. Naum grew up as an only child, both of his siblings having died in infancy. The family was non-religious, but it did observe some traditions – e.g., they did not celebrate the Passover Seder in their own home, but attended the Seder conducted by their relatives. In 1940, Naum entered the Volsk School for Aeromechanics in the Lower Volga Region (southern Russia).
On June 22, 1941, the Soviet-German War broke out, and the school administration allowed the students to volunteer for active service; most of the cadets, including Naum Karas, took up this offer. On June 26, all the volunteers were sent on a train to Kiev, arriving there on the next day. Over the following weeks, they had to defend the capital of Ukraine. Naum Karas was attached to the 2nd Fighter Air Regiment of the 36th Fighter Air Division. From July to September 1941, his regiment kept losing aircraft and retreating from one airbase to another, moving steadily eastward. On July 3, Naum was wounded for the first time in a German bombing raid. His injury was classified as a light one, and he was thus not hospitalized, but only transferred to a less strenuous military job. As the regiment was leaving its last (for Nahum) airbase in Boryspil and crossing the Trubezh River, Karas was wounded for the second time and taken prisoner by the Germans.
In late October 1941, Karas managed to escape from the POW camp. Early on in his wanderings across the German-occupied area, he heard rumors of Soviet partisans being active in central Ukraine, and made up his mind to join them. After failing to find the partisans, he decided instead to try to cross the frontline to the Soviet side. In the winter cold, his wounds – which, naturally, had not been properly treated at the German camp Revier – reopened, and he was forced to stay in several Ukrainian villages, where the peasants took him for a Ukrainian Red Army straggler. Only in May 1942 did Karas feel strong enough to resume his eastward trek. He left Ukraine, crossed the Don lands, and finally met the Red Army in the North Caucasus in December 1942. Thus, his period of wanderings had lasted for a total of sixteen months. The Soviets assembled some 150 stragglers like Karas and sent them all to the NKVD (future KGB) camp #261 for screening. The screening proceeded relatively smoothly, and, some time later, most of the former stragglers were distributed among various military units. Karas was ordered to find and rejoin his former regiment and division. The search took him at least two months. In June 1943, in the Orel Region, Karas finally stumbled upon his former commander; his 2nd Fighter Air Regiment had, by then, been renamed the 85th Guards Air Regiment. As Naum was extremely emaciated, weighing a little over 40 kilograms (100 pounds), the colonel sent him to recuperate at the divisional rest house.
Two days after Naum's arrival at the rest house, on July 6, 1943, the Kursk Salient operation began, and Karas came to the airbase of his regiment and demanded to be sent to combat. He took part in the liberation of Orel, and then (in September 1943) in the liberation of Briansk. Near the latter city, his 85th Guards Regiment was decimated, and Karas was transferred to another regiment of the same division. In April 1945, the regiment was moved to Germany; Karas met V-E Day near Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. He was discharged from the army in August 1946.
An interrogator at the NKVD camp #261 calls Naum Karas a Jewish traitor:
"During the last interrogation – to be precise, the next-to-last one – I told the captain, who was the interrogator – I had nothing to hide, because I had returned to 'our' side, to my comrades – that I was Jewish. And he replied: 'Well then, if you are Jewish – this means that you have sold yourself to the enemy.' After that, I gave up speaking with him, saying not a word. No matter what they did to me, no matter how hard he tried to make me talk – no, he did not beat me, but he yelled at me all the time – I kept saying: 'No, not a word with you anymore. I will speak only with the commandant of the camp.' [They sent] me to the punishment cell. I declared a hunger strike. On the third day, I was summoned to the camp commandant, a colonel… 'Sit down'; I sat down. He opened a bedside table and took out a loaf of bread and a salted herring: 'Eat!'. But I was smart: 'aha, now he will give me some salted herring, and won't give me water.' So, I refused to eat. But we gradually struck up a conversation. 'Why did you refuse to talk?' And I told him… how it was. The colonel said: There won't be any more interrogations; calm down and go to your quarters.' And on the next day, May 7, I received a document… 'Such-and-such has undergone an examination at Special Camp #261, and is instructed to continue his service in the Red Army'."1
- 1. YVA O.93/377496, reel 6, 1:20-3:33