Shayke (Yeshayahu) Avni in Israel.
Shayke Avni was born as Shayke (Yishayahu) Zilbershtein in 1926 in Brześć nad Bugiem, Poland (now Brest, Belarus). He spent his childhood in the nearby shtetl of Małoryta (now Malaryta, Belarus), which he later regarded as his hometown. In the 1930s, two of Shayke's sisters emigrated, settling in the Land of Israel. The rest of the Zilbershtein family remained in Poland because Shayke's brothers Jakób (Yaakov) and Józef (Yosef) were drafted into the Polish army.
In September 1939, World War II began and eastern Poland was occupied by the Soviets. In the summer of 1940, Shayke's brother Józef escaped from German captivity and succeeded in reaching Małoryta, where he informed people about the fate of Jewish soldiers in Nazi POW camps and of the Jews in general in German-occupied Poland. Józef's revelations, as well as what other refugees from western Poland reported, made a strong impression on Shayke. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, against the view of other family members, Shayke insisted on the urgent necessity of fleeing. His father, who believed that it was possible to live under the rule of the Germans, whom he and others believed to be a "cultured people," hid Shayke's shoes and warm clothing to prevent his son's flight. However, Shayke was not deterred and, on the fourth day of the war when the Germans were entering the town, he fled without either shoes or warm clothes.
After some wandering and adventures, in 1942 Shayke arrived in Stalinabad (now Duşanbe, Tajikistan, Central Asia), where he entered a paramilitary technical school that trained people to work with diesel engines. In Stalinabad he tried to volunteer for the Red Army but was rejected: not only was he underage (Shayke was only 16 years old), but he was small and looked young. The medical commission concluded that he had forged his documents and was in fact 14 years old. Shayke was arrested as a German spy since people in Central Asia did not know the difference between the German and Yiddish languages. He was sent to a labor camp in Siberia, from which he managed to escape and reach Novosibirsk. There he managed to obtain forged documents indicating that he was a Catholic Pole named Józef Alergant. As a result, local Polish refugees took him for one of their own. He recalled "I was eager to enlist in order to be able to fight the Nazis."1
With this aim in view, he joined a group of Polish refugees, who had recently joined the Polish army of General Anders and were going to leave the Soviet Union for Iran (from which they would proceed to reach the Western theater of war and fight there). However, Shayke and his comrades lost their way and missed their transport to Iran. Shayke decided that the delay in his departure would not prevent him from fighting the Nazis and that he would immediately enlist in the Red Army!2 With this thought in mind, he found a military train that was transporting a Red Army regiment westward and asked the commander to enlist him. The commander, like Soviet military personnel earlier, took Shayke for a minor but agreed to take him as a "child-mascot" of the regiment.
Shayke Zilbershtein received a Red Army uniform and underwent an intensive military training course. His first specialty was as a sniper; however, Shayke insisted that he had to be part of a tank crew since he was familiar with diesel engines. His request was approved, and he was sent to a two-month training course. In the fall of 1943, he was deployed as a tank driver in the area of Smolensk and Orsha (in the Russian-Belorussian border area). In one of his first battles, his tank was hit. Shayke was the only member of the crew that was wounded slightly; the others received serious injuries.
In his book of memoirs, Shayke clearly confuses the numbers of divisions in which he served and the names of the fronts on which he was deployed. For example, it is unclear in which Red Army unit he began his military service. What is clear is that he fought in Belorussia, then in Western Ukraine, and in the summer of 1944 entered Poland in the area of Chełm. At some stage, he was transferred to the pro-Soviet 1st Polish Army led by Zygmunt Berling, first as a rank-and-file tank crew member, then in the capacity of instructor. He passed through many former murder sites, most likely including the Majdanek death camp. At each site of Nazi mass shootings that he passed through, he noted the reluctance of the local population to speak about what had taken place there. It was from this silence that he began to understand what had happened to the Jews of Eastern Europe, what the role of local Ukrainians and Poles in that had been, and what, most likely, had been the fate of his family.
On the other hand, Shayke had always been happy to encounter a fellow Jew serving in the Red Army.
Shayke Zilbershtein finished the war in a hospital, to which he was sent following an inflammation of an old leg injury. After that, as an experienced soldier, he was sent to a course for tank officers of the new Polish Army. In the fall of 1945, he received officer rank and served in Silesia, that had just become part of Poland. In 1946, Shayke was sent on a mission to the Soviet occupied zone of Berlin, from which, aided by a Soviet officer named Shusterman, he succeeded in reaching the U.S. zone of occupation. In 1947 Shayke Zilbershtein, who changed his name to Yeshayahu Avni, arrived in the Land of Israel. After 1948, in the State of Israel Avni served in the tank forces of the Israeli Defense Forces, taking part in the War of Independence of 1948-49, as well as in the wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973. Yeshayahu Avni died in Raanana in 2003.
A meeting at the front
"In one place …, an officer with the rank of lieutenant, accompanied by about twenty privates, approached my tank. The men were muddy, wet, dirty, and frozen. The officer turned to me … asking me to let his men get up on the rear part of the tank, i.e. , the engine cover, in order to warm their frozen bones a little and to dry out a bit. I don't know how this occurred to me, but I believed that I was seeing a Jewish officer. In those days, I knew already the code accepted among Jews, my word was: 'Amkho?' [Your people?], and the reply was 'Kmokho – amkho' [Like you – your people]. I resorted to this code and, thus, I learned that the officer was indeed Jewish, and that he had been drafted into the Red Army in 1940. He was glad to meet me, and obviously I let them [his men] get up onto my tank to warm up.… Mounted on the tank, they continued on their long way … until they joined their unit. Kaplan, that Jewish officer who rode on my tank in 1944, [later] also moved to Israel and, in the late 1960s, we met when both of us were officers of the Israeli Defense Forces…."
Shayke Avni, Shalosh tahanot be-hayav shel hayal. Tel-Aviv: Bitan, 2001, pp. 156-157.