Yitzhak Pinhas Oremland was born in 1908 in Kamen Kashirsk (today Kamin Kashyrskyi, Ukraine). From 1921 to 1939, the town was part of independent Poland and was known as Kamień Koszyrski. Pinhas's father Pesah was a melamed, a religious teacher. As a result, as a boy Pinhas received a good religious education. When he grew up, he earned his living from menial work – as a metal-worker and a repairman at the local brick factory In September 1939 Kamień Koszyrski, together with the rest of the Polish province of Polesia, was occupied by the Soviets. On June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa began, and, among many others, Oremland received a call-up notice. The enlisted young men were assembled and formed into a military unit, but did not have time to leave the town before they were caught by the German offensive. Pinhas was incarcerated in the ghetto of Kamień Koszyrski but, as an experienced worker, he was selected to survive the first mass murders of Jews in the town in 1941. During the major murder operation of August 10, 1942, that was conducted under the pretext of "a redistribution of work certificates," Pinhas's son Yona and daughter Gitele were killed. In November 1942, during the liquidation of the ghetto, Pinhas and some comrades succeeded in escaping to the forest.
In the summer of 1943, Pinhas Oremland joined the partisan unit headed by Aleksei Fedorov. He regarded fighting with the Soviet partisans as an opportunity to take revenge on the murderers of the Jewish people, both German Nazis and their local collaborators. In February 1944, two officers arrived at Fedorov's unit at the same time. The Polish officer proposed that the Jews serving with Fedorov join the Gwardia Ludowa (the Polish pro-Communist partisan army), while the Soviet officer proposed that they move east with his battalion to join the Red Army. Oremland chose the second option and joined the battalion headed by the Soviet officer – service with the Red Army appeared to him to be the preferable way to avenge his murdered fellow Jews.
Since, as a result of being in the ghetto and then living in the forest, Oremland weighed only 54 kilograms (119 pounds), he could easily have avoided the draft (and his comrades advised him to do so.). Moreover, he was the sole support of his wife Basia (Batia). Nevertheless, Pinhas volunteered to join the Red Army. From the conscription office in the town of Rafałówka he was sent, with other draftees, to a training camp in Vologda, in northern Russia. Knowing that there was a tendency to send well-educated Jews to various military courses, Pinhas downplayed his education, claiming that his education was solely religious and that he did not know to write in Russian. Pinhas did this because he was eager to get to the front as quickly as possible. Thus, his training lasted only two months.
In May 1944, new reinforcements arrived in Vologda from his vicinity – Kamień Koszyrski and nearby villages. Pinhas was summoned to the Special Department and interrogated, being asked which of the newly drafted Ukrainians he knew personally and which of them had collaborated with the German occupiers. Pinhas gave a detailed account of the people he knew and, as a result, was offered a position with the NKGB (a predecessor of the KGB). He refused, explaining that he was eager to get to the front.
Despite his refusal, Oremland was sent to the Soviet North, where he took part in the interrogation of new Ukrainian draftees from his areas in Polesia. As an eyewitness, he also took part in the investigation of war criminals – Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, many of whom had been involved in the robbing and murder of Jews. Oremland's testimony that this or that man had served the Germans meant that person would be sent to a Gulag camp instead of to the Red Army.
However, in the summer of 1944, Pinhas insisted that he had to take part in the conquest of Berlin. The command granted his request. After serving for a time in a POW camp for German officers, in September-October 1944 he was included as a machine-gunner in the 23rd Guards Rifle Division assigned to the 3rd Baltic Front and sent to fight in Estonia and Latvia. In October 1944, Oremland encountered a fellow-townsman, a Ukrainian who in August 1942 had denounced to the Germans a group of Jews hiding from the Nazi "Aktion." The denouncer was a soldier in Pinhas' regiment. Pinhas found an opportunity and killed the Ukrainian.
In January 1945 his division was transferred to the 1st Belorussian Front, where Oremland took part in the liberation of Warsaw and of Bydgoszcz, in the forcing of the Oder River, and in the offensive on Berlin and the capture of the city. In the spring of 1945, Pinhas shot to death a whole column of German POWs he was supposed to bring to headquarters and only his eloquent defense of his act saved him from being court martialed. After the battle for Berlin he was awarded the medal For Courage, the citation for which stated that Guards Private Oremland had personally killed nine German soldiers. 1
Oremland continued his service in Germany after the war. After his release from military service, he returned temporarily to Polesia, where he found his wife. Later, as former Polish citizens, they repatriated to Poland. Their daughter Sarah was born in September 1946 ("We, Batia and I, understood that God had answered our prayers" he wrote in his memoirs).
In 1950, Pinhas and Batia Oremland immigrated to Israel, where they lived on the moshav Ein-Vered. Pinhas died in 1977 and Batia — in 1983.
[Based on Oremland's memoirs "Avadim hayinu", a manuscript deposited in the Massua Archives, Tel-Yitzhak, Israel]
Antisemitism in the Red Army
In his memoirs, Oremland noted that he did not suffer from antisemitism in the Red Army and that his comrades loved him. However, there was one exception — during his training at the Vologda camp in 1944.
"An instructor with the rank of lieutenant … showed us how to shoot and we had to hit the target from the distance of 400 meters. Inter alia, he said to a soldier who missed the target: 'You are shooting like a Jew.' So, there was open antisemitism in the Red Army too? It is true that most of the soldiers and officers respected me… but for me this case was like thunder out of a clear sky. I thought that I had to teach a lesson to this lieutenant… What did I have to be afraid of? During one of the exercises the lieutenant came up to me and asked – just as he asked the other soldiers – whether I could see the target.
– No! – was my answer.
– How is that possible if the rest of the soldiers can see it?
– They can see, but I can not.
The lieutenant became angry, turned red, and began to yell at me.
– How is it possible that everybody sees it but you don't?!
– I am Jewish, and therefore I don't see the target. But if you take the place of the target, you can be sure that all the Jewish soldiers will see you and hit you very well!"
The lieutenant grasped my point and tried to reconcile with me. He did not know that I was Jewish, he said"
[Pinhas Oremland, Avadim hayinu, a manuscript deposited in the Massua Archives, pp. 183-184]
Revenge on a traitor
In October 1944, Pinhas Oremland encountered a fellow-townsman, a Ukrainian who in August 1942 had denounced to the Germans a group of Jews hiding from a Nazi "Aktion." Now this fellow was a soldier in the same regiment as Pinhas. Pinhas found the opportunity and killed him in cold blood. In his memoirs, Oremland recalled the Nazi murder operation of August 1942 in his town and how he met the traitor two years later:
"… Aharon and his son Shlomo went to the brick factory where we had worked during Soviet rule [in order to hide there]. The place appeared suitable because it was close to the forest. Besides, there were clay pits there, and it was possible to hide in them for a long time. Aharon, his son, and two other young men hid there. Toward evening, some goyim of Voiehoshcha village were returning from town to their homes. They passed the factory and saw the people hiding. Apparently the son of a worker, who had worked with us for twenty years saw them and it was he who told the goyim that Jews were hiding in the pits. The peasants took the Jews out and brought them to the Germans. They [the Jews] could easily have run away then, but they thought that they were only being taken for work so they did not want to risk running away. These poor people were led through the village of Oleksiyivka, where fifty families had been working with us for twenty years. None of them found it necessary to leave his home to say to the non-Jewish abusers one good thing [like the following]: "Why are you abusing them, what have these Jews done to you?" … In October 1944, I killed him [the worker's son] with my own hands and, when he was wounded, even managed to whisper in his ear 'Know, wicked man, that this is for the pure blood that you have shed, for my brother-in-law Aaron, his son Shlomo, and for the two young men Baruch and Ayzik Engel.' He asked me not to shoot him again and to take him to a hospital. I said to him: 'You must accept your [just] recompense, the bullet that you deserve.'"
[Pinhas Oremland, Avadim hayinu, a manuscript deposited in the Massua Archives, pp. 74]
A POW camp for German officers, 1944
In September 1944, to his chagrin, Pinhas Oremland was sent to serve at a POW camp for German officers. He was upset that "the conditions in the camp were too good for these murderers'':
"I turned to a captured German officer and said to him: 'Look how the Russians are treating you! They give you something to eat and to drink, you even get books to read, and have comfortable places to sleep! And how did you treat the Russians? You regarded them as 'untermenschen,' you killed many of them – men, women, children, old people!' 'It is not true! We killed only Jews!' – he said. I was busy with repair work at this time, but after I heard his last words, I could not restrain myself. I picked up a shovel and hit him in the face. What, are we to be afraid of a German swine even in the Red Army?
There was some noise, and two soldiers came to bring me to the colonel.
– What's happened? You have been assigned to help us here, and you are acting like a saboteur. How is this possible? I did not expect such a thing from you!
I answered the colonel straightforwardly.
– 'Please, Comrade Colonel, look at yourself! You are blind in one eye for the rest of your life – because of the Germans! You lost two fingers! And you are defending them!'
–' I am not defending them' – the officer said, - 'But what you have done is not to be done in the Red Army. Now I can let you go and not have you arrested.'
– 'That not enough for me' – I said bluntly. – 'I want to be restored to my previous position; let the Germans see that I am not under arrest.'"
[Pinhas Oremland, Avadim hayinu, a manuscript deposited in the Massua Archives, p. 196]
- 1. Oremland also mentions other military awards but we do not have any documents corroborating other awards.