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On a wall panel, Ilan Yakovlevich Palat recalls how, after being wounded in the ankle outside Kharkov, he was dragged off the battlefield. His comrade laid him out in a house and hung Palat’s boot by a window to alert passersby that someone was inside. In the early hours of the morning, Palat heard someone approach.
“I got my pistol ready, two cartridges: One bullet for him, the second for myself,” Palat recalled.
The stranger turned out to be a local woman who put Palat on the back of a cart and took him to the nearest field hospital.
Palat, who came from the Soviet Jewish region of Birobidzhan, said: “Of the 44 [of] us, only three came back. One returned without his left leg, another without his right arm and I came back on crutches.”
And so the exhibition continues, with a succession of gripping, firsthand accounts — of treachery and atrocities, of small acts of kindness and stirring examples of courage, of camaraderie and terror.
Each one deserves mention. But Semeon Grigorevich Shpiegel’s story is the one that reminded me of the veteran and the puddle. He volunteered for the Red Army in May 1942 and, as with all the exhibition’s tales, the small details of Shpiegel’s experience illustrate the widespread hardships of daily life.
At 19, Shpiegel was dispatched to Stalingrad, where he fought as part of a mortar unit in one of the cruelest and bloodiest battles in history.
“We crossed the river on the 27th of September,” Shpiegel recounted. “We had to get our water from the Volga and carry it in mess tins…. We drank water from the puddles. Drank water from the buckets that were standing next to houses, rainwater. The water was covered with mold. But we were thirsty and so we drank it.”
“Lives of the Great Patriotic War: The Untold Stories of Soviet Jewish Soldiers in the Red Army During WWII,” runs at the Weill Art Gallery, 92nd Street Y, until December 6. Forward publisher Sam Norich will moderate a panel about Jews in the Red Army on November 22 at the 92nd Street Y.
Paul Berger is a staff writer for the Forward.