Vladimir Gelfand was born in 1923 in the town of Novo-Arkhangelsk, near Uman, central Ukraine. In 1933 the family moved to Dnepropetrovsk (now Dnipro), which Gelfand later regarded as his hometown. With the beginning of the Soviet-German war in June 1941, Vladimir was mobilized for agricultural works but in August 1941, he was evacuated to the Northern Caucasus, where he was supposed to receive military training. In the Caucasus, in particular during his military training, he encountered antisemitism – both verbal and corporal, with his being beaten more than once.
In May 1942, Gelfand was drafted into the Red Army. After three weeks of training with mortars, he was assigned to active service. Gelfand was given the rank of sergeant and was appointed commander of a mortar crew. The period when he was drafted largely determined his first combat experience. Gelfand took part in the abortive second Kharkov operation, also known as the Kharkov disaster. During the first six weeks he was deployed at the front near Kharkov in eastern Ukraine, Gelfand's regiment was encircled by the enemy and destroyed. With remnants of his unit, he broke out of the encirclement in the Stalingrad area. After a short stay at the screening point, where he and his comrades were interrogated by SMERSH (the Soviet anti-espionage unit), Gelfand was assigned to the 15th Guards Rifle Division, where he served as commander of a mortar crew and also as deputy political officer (later the deputy commander for political matters) of a company.
In December 1942 Vladimir Gelfand was lightly wounded. However, the danger of gangrene setting in required a long stay in a military hospital. In February 1943 he was sent to an officers' course. In January 1944, he returned to active service as a lieutenant. He fought in Ukraine, Romania, Poland and Germany. He ended the war near Berlin. He continued his army service for an additional sixteen months, being demobilized in October 1946.
Gelfand kept a diary from 1941 to 1946. The Soviet command viewed the writing of a journal by military personnel during the war with suspicion. In many cases commanders confiscated and destroyed the field diaries of their subordinates. Since Gelfand wrote his diary openly and sometimes read his entries aloud to his comrades, he was taking quite a risk. The full text of the diary is extensive. Oleg Budnitskii, who wrote an introduction and comments to the full Russian-language edition of Gelfand's diary1\, noted that Vladimir Gelfand was a typical graphomaniac who dreamed in vain of becoming a professional writer after the war. Nevertheless, his diary is written with honesty and is credible, full of details, often graphic ones, and is an interesting historical document. Remarkably, its "German" part, i.e. that part relating to Gelfand's wartime and postwar service in Germany, was translated into German and published in Germany in paperback form (first edition: Gelfand W. Deutschland-Tagebuch 1945–1946: Aufzeichnungen eines Rotarmisten. Gebundene Ausgabe. [Berlin]: Aufbau-Verlag, 2005; paperback edition: Aufbau Taschenbuch, 2008). The diary reveals a naïve, far from bellicose Jewish youth who was quite unable to command others. (His subordinates openly ignored his orders.) However, he was firm in his principles and courageous, continuing to write in his diary even during enemy shelling, etc. Apparently, he had no friends, and his relationships with his comrades in arms were tense at best. The German part of his diary shows him to have been a constant womanizer, who boasted about his "romances" or "victories" over German and Russian women in Germany in 1945 and 1946. In contrast, among his more positive traits was his strong reaction to any form of nationalism and racism, especially of antisemitism, from which he suffered in the war years.
It should be noted that Gelfand suffered from antisemitism more during his stay in the rear and in the hospital than at the front.What upset him most of all was not the disgusting jokes of his comrades or occasional beatings from them, but the Nazi antisemitic propaganda leaflets that he saw several times at the front.
Vladimir Gelfand died in Dnepropetrovsk in 1983.
Vladimir Gelfand about antisemitism
Gelfand who suffered from antisemitism both during his military training in 1942 and later at the front and during his treatment in a military hospital. and in the rear was upset most of all not by this, but by the Nazi antisemitic propaganda leaflets which he encountered at the front in June 1942 in eastern Ukraine.
"On the way here [the village of Kabanie] I found two German leaflets. What stupid and illiterate writers worked on their compilation, what simple-minded thoughts are expressed in these so-called 'leaflets'! I just cannot believe that these leaflets were written with the aim of encouraging the defection of our people to the side of the German scoundrels. Who will believe their unconvincing arguments or trust them? The only possibly effective argument presented relates to the Jews. In this regard, antisemitism is highly developed and the words that 'we are fighting only against the Yids who have been sitting on your neck and are the instigators of the war' -can affect some people. Further, they claim that because of their cowardice the 'Yids' head for the rear, do not fight, and do not want to be commissars at the front. This is ridiculous and, in the mouths of the compilers of the leaflets, sounds like a bad joke.
In response to the allegation that the Jews can be found [only] in the rear, I can say that in our company alone there are at least seven Jews and, since they are few in comparison with the [total number of] Russians, […] – that is a lot! As for Jew fearing [i.e. avoiding] being commissars – there is nothing to say. I will show them in battle by my own example what kind of nonsense they are spouting. Even though I am a Jew, I won't make any attempt to avoid the position of commissar of a combat unit, but I will pursue this goal fervently, passionately, and tenaciously.
I did not show the leaflets to anyone except for the commander of our platoon."2
September 1943, in eastern Ukraine:
"On the way I also found two German leaflets that were totally anti-Jewish. In them, they make fun of Jewish names and customs and, at the end, urge people 'to smash the Yids' government that had plunged Russia into war.' This is their only trump card, and they cling to it with the despair of a drowning man. Reckoning on the hostility toward Jews, which has not yet been completely overcome in Russia since the days of October [the Revolution of 1917], the Germans are trying to affect thoughts and feelings of Soviet people at least with this. But only people in whom the belief [in the Soviet cause] is weak or are real traitors can believe these enemies and peck at their bait. I will prove to Hitler's scoundrels who the Soviet Jews are and how they love their Motherland, hate the fascists, and are ready for any deeds in order to defeat foreign invaders. I will keep the leaflets so that somewhat later I will be able to stick them on the forehead of a German officer or a scribbler whom I will capture with my own hand. I will reach that moment. I will fulfill my intention."3