Yurii Gibsh was born in 1925 in Lebedyn, northeastern Ukraine, into an assimilated family – later, he would admit that he did not know a word of Yiddish. In the late 1920s or early 1930s, the family moved to the Donbass area, Ukraine, where the boy began to attend school. A frail and sickly youth, he was a frequent target of anti-Jewish slurs hurled by the local non-Jewish children (the sons of Slavic miners), and these affected him painfully. His dream was to be an artist, and he began to draw at the age of ten.
In June 1941, following the outbreak of the Soviet-German war, the Gibsh family was able to evacuate to Kazakhstan. In 1942, Yurii's father Iosif, a physician, was drafted into the army, and in 1943, upon reaching the age of 18, Yurii was drafted, as well. He was sent to a military school in Central Asia, which he was unable to finish, on account of being transferred to a paratroopers brigade of the Red Army Reserve of the Supreme High Command, which was stationed in the Moscow Region. While training to become paratroopers, the cadets had to perform a great deal of physical labor: digging trenches, chopping wood, building bunkers, etc.
"I was not fit for physical labor, – Gibsh recalled. – When we were digging ditches for construction projects, the commander would assign a 'quota' of digging to each soldier, and, almost invariably, I would be the last to finish my work. However, nobody thrust my Jewishness in my face because of that. To the contrary, the lads who were accustomed to such labor … taught and tutored me – in a mocking, but friendly, way… But, in the evenings, sitting around a fire or in the living bunker, before going to sleep, my comrades would constantly harp on the "Jewish" theme, visibly relishing the fact that they were doing it in my presence…. 'the Russians are fighting, and the Jews are sitting in Tashkent [in Central Asia]'; sometimes, they savored the contents of German antisemitic leaflets. On other occasions, they said that, in Stalingrad, the Germans had dropped crates of food on our positions, and then they dropped a Jew (without a parachute, of course), with the following note attached to him: 'And here is a vendor for you'".1
In February 1945, after completing the training, Gibsh was attached as an infantry man to the 74th Riflemen Division operating on the 3rd Ukrainian Front, and sent to Hungary. During the remaining three months of war, he would experience the full gamut of a frontline soldier's life: infantry charges, enemy tank attacks, machine gun fire from enemy planes, artillery and mortar shelling by the enemy, a wound, etc. In March 1945, after the battle for the village of Güttenbach (Hung. Pinkoc) in the Austrian Burgenland, he was awarded the medal "For Courage". He wrote:
"For many years after the war, I would recall the frontline service as the best time of my life. Because I felt myself a necessary, significant, and respected man… There, I was no worse than the rest of the soldiers." 2
In fact, he said, euphemistically, that nobody would poke his nose with his Jewishness (see Appendix 1).
Yurii Gibsh ended the war in Austria.
After the war, he settled in Samara (which was then known as Kuibyshev), in the Middle Volga region, Russia. In 1962, he graduated from the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow University, and began to work as a correspondent of the local newspaper Volzhskaia kommuna [The Volga Commune]. Despite his professed "Russian" identity, he edited the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor, and fellow postwar resident of Samara, Daniil Klovsky. The book, titled The Road from Grodno, was published in Samara in 1994 (an English edition came out in 2003).
Yurii Gibsh died from cancer in 2001.