Shabsi Berkhman was born in 1901 in Poltava, Ukraine. He took part in the Russian civil war of 1918-1921. Afterward Berkhman studied at an evening school (while working during the daytime). He graduated from a mining institute and then worked in Baku, Azerbaijan as an engineer at an oilfield.
During the Soviet-German War, Berkhman was drafted into the Red Army in August 1941 as a political commissar. He served on the Southern Front. After the decree of October 1942 that liquidated the position of political commissar in the Red Army, Berkhman became deputy commander of a battalion (of the 690th Infantry Regiment) for political work. Subsequently he was promoted to the position of deputy commander of the 690th Infantry Regiment, with the rank of major.
Although the popular image of a political commissar at the Red Army is that of a talker rather than a warrior, more than once, Berkhman assumed responsibilities of battalion commander when a commander was killed or wounded. On many occasions, he participated in attacks like a common soldier. This was characteristic of him not only during the early stages of the war when such a phenomenon was not rare in the Red Army but also later. According to his service documents, he was wounded seven times; two of these injuries were serious. Of the four orders and two medals awarded to Berkhman, only the first order, that of the Red Star in September 1943, was awarded to him for the political work he carried out in his battalion. He received the others for his performance in combat. In 1942, he took part in the defense of Sevastopol, Crimea. From October 1942 to February 1943, he took part in the fighting at Stalingrad and in the summer of 1943 – in the Miuss operation in eastern Ukraine. In 1944, he participated in the liberation of the Crimea, where he was seriously wounded, and in 1945 – in the liberation of Poland.
In May 1944, during the fighting in the Crimea, Berkhman was recommended for the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Class. Inter alia, the recommendation says:
"On April 8, 1944, while in the ranks of the 3rd Infantry Battalion, Comr[ade] Berkhman showed exceptional courage and heroism… he was the first to break into the enemy trenches, [and] overcame three machine-guns with hand-grenades, killed 17 Germans with his pistol. At the peak of the battle, when the battalion commander and two company commanders were put out of action, Comr[ade] Berkhman took command of the battalion [and], drove the enemy from its fortifications…Comr[ade] Berkman was seriously injured by a direct hit from a 'Ferdinand' [a self-propelled gun]. However, he did not leave the battle field but continued to repulse the [enemy's] counter-attacks."
In May 1944, in liberated Simferopol – the capital city of the Crimea, Berkhman, who was recovering after his injury, was a witness of the exhumation of the mass graves in the Krasnyi kolkhoz, where the Nazis had murdered 14,000 Jews of the city in December 1941. Berkhman was shocked by the sight of the thousands of bodies – of adults, children, and infants– in the huge pit. The correspondent who wrote an article about him for the Yiddish newspaper Eynikayt noted Berkhman's first reaction: "Not an eye for an eye… No, a whole head for an eye!", - he remarked. He continued: "It's my duty to enter Germany with my regiment; I must go through its cities and villages… I have so far killed too few Germans. What a shame! Too few, too few. All my hopes [for revenge] are placed on the future." Then Berkhman, who had been a Communist Party member since 1928 and a political commissar of his regiment, cited the words of the ancient Rabbi Tarfon: "Hayeim kotsir, hamolokho merubo" (Ashkenazi Hebrew for "The day is short, the task is great," Pirqei Avot, 2:20).
Berkhman was recommended for his last wartime military award – the Order of the Red Banner – on May 8, 1945, VE (Victory in Europe) day.
Berkhman died in 1995 in the USA.
Berkhman told the following to the correspondent of Eynikayt
"In Armiansk [a town in the northern Crimea] I had the pleasure of informing Germans that it was a Jew who was striking them. … During our breakthrough near Armiansk, our battalion commander was killed, and I assumed command. The Germans counter-attacked us nine times… and called out to us 'Surrender!' I replied: 'Der Jude does not surrender!' – and kept shooting from my rifle."
From: GARF 8114-1-136, copy YVA JM/26130