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.
Private Yurii Gibsh at the frontline
"At this place, I was no worse than the rest of the soldiers. Not a bit worse! And that's the thing. There, at the frontline, it did not matter what your last name was, or who your parents were. The only thing that mattered was how well you fought, and whether you were reliable as a soldier.
Most of all, I feared lest anyone should think that I was in a funk, or that I was more afraid than the others. For this reason, whenever we were advancing 'in a chain', I would constantly cast glances to the left and right: God forbid that I should lag behind! I had no right to do that, I was Jewish".
Evrei Samary na frontakh Velikoi Otechestvennoi, vol. 1, Samara, 2005, pp. 57
Yurii Gibsh's complex ethnic identity
In February 1945, while fighting in Hungary, five Soviet soldiers, Private Yurii Gibsh among them, got drunk on peasant wine in one of the villages. They were stopped by a Red Army patrol.
"We were dragging ourselves along a road. Being relatively sober, I walked in the middle, while my drunken comrades clung to me on both sides… Suddenly, there was a patrol. And we were in such a condition, without our documents, so close to the frontline.
At this point, I should mention the ethnic composition of our five-man band: a Jew, a Russian, a Ukrainian, a Kazakh, and one who seemed an Udmurt. Our regiment was multiethnic… So… having seen the patrol, our boys lost courage. And now, pushing himself ahead of the four others, the [Mongolic-looking] Kazakh soldier declared to the patrol:
– You are Russian Ivans, and we are Russian Ivans, too.
Meaning: "we will understand one another".
The men of the patrol burst out laughing, and let us pass unmolested.
I will never forget the words of this Kazakh. He had a point: at the front, all of us were 'Russian Ivans'.
However, from time to time, I would recall that I was Jewish – i.e., different from the others… particularly when I was sitting in a trench alone at night, at the very forefront, trying to stay awake. God forbid that the Germans should creep up on me, and I won't see them, and… I knew: I must not be captured!"Evrei Samary na frontakh Velikoi Otechestvennoi, vol. 1, Samara, 2005, pp. 58-59
From Yurii Gibsh's speech in 1995, at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of victory in World War II, delivered at the editorial office of his newspaper:
"I could leave the country [Russia], as many now do. But I will never leave it. My relatives are buried in its soil. I cannot live without Russian literature. I fought for my country. This is my homeland".