Yehiel Kaminer was born as Juliusz (Julek) Kaminer in 1924 in Lwow, Poland. In September 1939, his city, along with the rest of Eastern Galicia, was occupied by the Soviets and, in June 1941, when Julek had not yet graduated from high school, Operation Barbarossa began. Despite his pre-conscription age (6 months short of 18), as a school graduate, Julek was sent to an eastern suburb of Lwow, where a Soviet militia was being formed. The teenagers, female as well as male, were told that they were going to be drafted into the Red Army. However, the Wehrmacht was approaching Lwow, so, from the eastern suburb of Lyczaków, the youths were marched to the town of Złoczów, 60 kilometers east of Lwow. On the way, some of the young people returned to Lwow, but Julek and his friend Frida continued eastward. In the vicinity of Złoczów, where the roads were crowded with retreating Soviet units, he realized that the only way to escape the doomed area was to volunteer for the Red Army – which is what he and Frida both did. They enlisted in the 12th Tank Division: Frida was mobilized as a nurse, and Julek as a private in the so-called "tank drop," units of infantry soldiers, who rode into attacks on tanks. His first participation in a battle took place the next day.
On one day in the summer of 1941, Kaminer was sent to blow up a bridge – the explosives had been placed by sappers. He was supposed to hide in ambush and to set off the explosives when the German forces were moving across the bridge. Julek succeeded in carrying out his assignment – the bridge flew into the air and the enemy trucks fell into the river. As a result, it was recommended that he be awarded the medal For Courage.1
In the second half of August 1941, the command of the regiment "remembered" that Kaminer was too young to serve as a soldier and released him from military service. Having been advised to continue his studies, Julek was evacuated eastward to Soviet Central Asia. However, instead of continuing his education, he worked at a cotton factory. In September 1942, he was drafted into a labor battalion and sent to the Northern Urals.
In May 1943, as a former Polish citizen, Kaminer received a call-up to the 1st Kosciuszko Division, a Polish formation that fought under the command of the Red Army. From the Northern Urals, he was sent to Moscow, and from there to Divovo, east of Moscow, where the formation of the division was taking place. During the enlistment procedure, Julek refused to be registered as a Pole and insisted on having his nationality registered as a Jew. As a consequence he was accused of being a Zionist and dismissed from the division. With his letter of dismissal in hand, he went to Moscow and volunteered to join the "Russian" Red Army.
In July 1943, Kaminer took part in the Battle at the Kursk Salient and was wounded. He was first sent to a frontline hospital, then to a military hospital in Izhevsk, in the northeasternpart of central Russia. After his release from hospital, he worked at a factory, but was drafted again and for some time served with military supply units. In February 1944, he was sent to an officers' course. His new military specialty was to be in radio communication. However, Kaminer failed to finish the course when his training squad seriously beat a brutal officer and all its members were sentenced to serve in a penal battalion for three months. In 1944 Julek fought in western Russia, then in Latvia. In October, he entered Eastern Prussia with an artillery division. In July 1944 his native city of Lww was recaptured by the Soviets. In the fall, Julek learned that all of his family had perished. In Prussia he was seriously contused, but returned to active service in January 1945. He took part in the battle for Danzig (which consisted of hard street fighting); then he participated in the forcing of the Oder River near Küstrin. He met Victory Day on the island of Rügen. He received a number of medals.
In the summer of 1945, when he was in Breslau, Kaminer learned that there were some kibbutzim, i.e. aliya-oriented groups in the city. In 1946, helped by the clandestine Brikha network, Yehiel Kaminer succeeded in crossing the border to the Allies' zone of western Germany. In April 1947 he left from Italy to go to the Land of Israel. However, their ship "She'ar Yishuv," with almost 800 illegal immigrants on board, was intercepted by the British. As a result, Yehiel spent a year and a half in a detention camp in Cyprus. He arrived in Israel only in October 1948.
Yehiel Kaminer died in 2013.
Private Kaminer asserts his Jewish identity
In May 1943 Yehiel Kaminer received a call-up to the 1st Kosciuszko Division. With his call-up notice he arrived at the railway station of Divovo, east of Moscow, where the formation of the division was taking place.
"In the camp, a second lieutenant received me politely. I sat down at the table, opposite him, and he began to fill out a form. The trouble came when we reached the item 'nationality.' I answered 'Jewish', but he did not write that down, looked up from the form to me, surprised, and repeated his question. I gave him the same answer. He began to take care of his fingernails, to clean them, and when he finished, asked his question for the third time. This time, I answered more decisively: 'Jewish nationality and, if it is important to you, you can add ' former citizen of Poland.' He was confused, he understood me – and even apologized – but said that, according to his orders, he was obliged to write down 'Polish nationality,' and only in addition to that, could he write 'religion – Jewish'. I refused decisively and said that I would not sign to the effect that the form was correct. He apologized and said that in this case he had to report to his commander – the political commissar Major Minc.
Several minutes later, he came back and said that his commander wanted to talk with me. From the very first moment, I realized that the commander was Jewish, and I was curious to know how this conversation, between the two of us would proceed. I entered the room and saluted him. He stood up from his desk and shook my hand … and began his conversation by saying that he understood that there had been a conflict between me and his aide. When I told him that there was nothing personal between us, he interpreted my answer as my agreement to write down my nationality as Polish. I insisted that he was wrong, and he began to explain that the Polish army and the Soviet army had the same goal … and that I should not be so stubborn in such formal and peripheral matters. I became angry and said to him that his position surprised me, and that as a Jew he should understand my feelings when they were depriving me of the special right that my service in the Russian army gave me -- the right to fall in battle as a Jew since that all of my relatives and friends had been murdered by the Germans. He became angry, especially because of my implication that he was Jewish.… He began to yell that I was a Zionist, a Revisionist, a nationalist, and anti-Soviet person, and that he would teach me a lesson."
This lesson was put into effect since Kaminer was dismissed from the Kosciuszko Division. He traveled to Moscow with his letter of dismissal.
"In Moscow, I went to the same colonel. He was very surprised to see me and asked me to explain him what had happened. With a naive expression on my face, I said that the Poles did not want to accept me to join them and gave him the accompanying letter … he read it and asked what was meant by the words 'Zionist' and 'Revisionist.' I informed him about my conversation with Major Minc. He asked 'Why was it so important to you not to be registered as a Pole?' I answered in the Jewish way – with a question: 'Would you agree to be registered as a Jew?' He looked at me with amazement and said: 'That is impossible, I am Russian.' I responded: 'So you can see that the same is impossible for me since I am Jewish.' He shook his head, uttered a harsh curse regarding Poles, and then said: 'You are right. You will fight with us, the Red Army!'".
Yehiel Kaminer, Hayim shekaele: zihronot shel Yehiel Kaminer, 2008, pp. 119-120
- 1. Yehiel Kaminer, Zikhronot shel Yehiel Kaminer, 2008, p. 85.