Shayke Kaptsan was born as Szaja Kapcan in 1923 in Baranowicze, eastern Poland (now Baranavichy, Belarus) to a family of six children. His father Hanoh (in Polish documents – Henryk) was a municipal clerk. The family was secular and remote from religion, however, yielding to the demand of the grandfather, Hanokh sent his son to a heder, a Jewish primary private religious school. At the age of 12 Shayke joined the local chapter of Hashomer Hatzair, a leftist Zionist movement. In 1937 he finished middle school and continued his education, studying electricity at a technical school.
In September 1939, World War II began in Europe and, soon thereafter, the town of Baranowicze was occupied by the Soviets. Under the Soviets Shaye's father Hanoh was dismissed from his job, then, in 1940 arrested, after which he disappeared permanently in the Gulag. In June 1941, other members of the Kaptsan family, including Shayke's mother, three of Shayke's siblings, and Shayke himself were resettled eastward as "unreliables." His sister Keyle was studying at a technical school in Grodno, and his little sister Masha was ill in a hospital. Later, both girls perished in the Baranowicze ghetto.
The Kaptsan family was deported to Eastern Siberia, to a remote village in the vicinity of Krasnoiarsk. In the fall of 1941 in the framework of the agreement between the Soviets and the Polish government in exile the family was permitted to move to a more urban location. The Kaptsans settled in the town of Achinsk, (west of Krasnoiarsk), where Shayke found a work as an electrician at a steel plant. Sometime in mid-1942 he received a draft notification. Shayke recalled that he could have avoided being drafted because he was considered an indispensable worker at his plant, but he agreed to be enlisted. He saw that all the other young men of his age were being mobilized, and he knew that he would feel awkward as the only young man left at his plant. 1
After a brief period of training as a communications man, Shayke was sent to the frontlines. 2 Within a few days, his artillery division found itself surrounded by the Germans. Kaptsan noted that a third of the soldiers, mainly Ukrainians and Belorussians, deserted, heading for home. There were seven Jews in his unit who got together to decide what they would do. "I said that I would never remain in an area occupied by the Germans and that I wanted to cross the frontlines together with my unit." However, three of the Jews also defected to go home. After 18 days of wandering, the rest of his unit crossed the frontline and arrived on the Soviet side. There the division was disbanded. Kaptsan successfully passed interrogation by the "Special Service" and was then sent to a course for officers. He noted that the course included soldiers from almost all Soviet ethnic groups, but that there were only a few Jews among them. He wrote "I could stand this, because I knew how to drink [vodka] and to hit back.'' 3 He established good relations with the non-Jews even though they used to say that there were few Jews at the front, and that Shayke (who was called "Sasha" in the Red Army) was probably not a Jew.
The course lasted six months, and at its end, as a former Polish citizen, Kaptsan was sent to join the pro-Soviet Polish army that was being formed in May-June 1943 in the Riazan area, east of Moscow. He became an officer in the 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division under the command of Zygmunt Berling. Kaptsan recalled the division being a half-Polish and half-Russian formation, where the commands were sometimes given in Russian. With this division, he was sent to the area of Smolensk in western Russia.
Kaptsan noted the increasing brutalization of Berling's Polish soldiers. Early in his service in the Smolensk area, he was summoned to interrogate a German POW. After the interrogation, the commander, who was reluctant to send a guard with a single POW to a distant POW camp, ordered Kaptsan to shoot the prisoner. Seeing Kaptsan's hesitation, the commander said: "Tell him that you are Jewish." The effect of the words was stunning: the German literally jumped out of his chair; "He probably thought that the Jews looked like those in Nazi cartoons" wrote Kaptsan. Kaptsan shot the prisoner, noting that this killing was one of the most painful moments in his military life. Kaptsan admitted that later, in Germany, killing 20 Germans at a time became a routine matter for him.
After fighting in the Smolensk area, his unit was transferred to Ukraine where, in the fall, Kaptsan took part in the forcing of the Dnieper River. After that, his unit proceeded to Berdichev. After the capture of Berdichev, Kaptsan visited this "famous Jewish town" to look for Jews, in vain. He met a Ukrainian and asked him where the Jews were. The man smiled broadly and said: "They were slaughtered" and made a gesture to show how this was done. The end of this man was bitter, Kaptsan concluded briefly, referring to what he had done to the Ukrainian. 4
Kaptsan fought in Poland, where he was awarded the Polish medal for the liberation of Warsaw, and then in Germany. In Poland he saw the Majdanek death camp. Before that, he noted "we did not believe our politruk (deputy commander for political matters) who said that the Germans had established death camps, now we learned that this was true." In thecamp the soldiers found four SS-people (one of whom was a woman) whom they beat to death with their bare hands.
Kaptsan finished the war in Berlin, where he left his signature on the Brandenburg Gate. During the war he was wounded twice and was awarded a number of medals (but no military orders).
After Victory Day, Kaptsan's unit was transferred to Poland, where a veritable civil war was going on. In 1946 he learned that his mother and two brothers had "repatriated" to Poland (his sister Pola had married a Russian and remained in Siberia). Shayke found them, and using his contacts with Hashomer Hatzair, managed to defect from the Polish army and cross the border to western Germany, where he lived for a while with his mother and two brothers in a DP-camp in the US zone of occupation. After some time in Germany and Austria, he immigrated to Israel in 1948.
Shaike Kaptsan died in 2016 in Sdot Yam, Israel.