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Mikhail Kupershmidt

Mikhail Kupershmidt

born in Bratslav , 1914


Mikhail Kupershmidt was born in Bratslav in 1914. His father was a coachman and his mother stayed home and looked after the children and the cow. His parents had six children, two of whom died in infancy. He attended a Yiddish school in Bratslav for four years. He served in the military in the Finnish War, and was working as a chauffeur when the war began. He survived under Nazi occupation in Reichkommissariat Ukraine, and ended the war serving in the Red Army. After the war, he returned to Bratslav, where he continued working as a driver. His first wife died in 1947. He soon remarried and has a son, who lives in Israel.

Current Video: The Orchard and the Mass Grave

Mikhail (Moyshe) Kupershmidt was twenty-seven years old when the war started in 1941. He was born in Bratslav in 1914; his father was a coachman and his father's father had been a horse trader. Kupershmidt had trained as a driver. As far back as he knew, his paternal ancestors had lived in Bratslav. His mother was from a small village about 12 kilometers away, where her father ran a mill. His father's family was poor, but his mother's family was wealthy enough to have their own cow.

When the Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939, beginning what was to become known as the Winter War, the Red Army quickly realized its need for more drivers; Kupershmidt was drafted to the northern front.

When he returned home in 1940, he had already been hardened in battle. He sought to return to the driving school at which he had been employed before the war, but found that it had closed in the interim. His record in uniform and reliability, though, impressed the chairman of the executive committee of the local Communist Party branch, who hired Kupershmidt to become his personal chauffeur.

Kupershmidt was still serving in that capacity on June 22, 1941. Within days able-bodied men were mobilized into the army, and Kupershmidt expected to serve as well. Instead, he received instructions to remain in his position as chauffeur to the chairman of the executive committee.

During the second week of July, as the Wehrmacht conquered the southern banks of the Southern Bug River in a southeastwardly direction toward Bratslav, the chairman decided to evacuate his wife and daughter. He ordered Kupershmidt to drive the two to a village in the district of Byshev, near Kiev, east of the encroaching front. The chairman hoped that from Byshev his family could escape into the Russian interior where his brother ran a factory. But by the time Kupershmidt reached Uman,the Germans had already encircled the city.

The Battle of Uman would end with the city falling to the Germans. One month later, during the festival of Succoth, German Police Battalion 304 massacred six thousand Jewish men, women, and children in the city.

In Uman, Kupershmidt was captured. The Germans confiscated his car and documents and took him as a prisoner to a nearby village. When they inspected his identification papers, they discovered that he was a Jew; nationality, an identity the Soviet bureaucracy kept distinct from citizenship, was clearly marked on Soviet identification papers.

In this clip, Kupershmidt describes what happened next:

They led me to an orchard with trees. And behind the orchard was a garden, a clearing, with covered trucks. And the German gave me a shovel to dig. There were non-Jewish prisoners standing there and the German was shouting "quickly, quickly." They were saying, "Look at the silly Jew digging his own grave." After I started to dig, a plane came and it started to bomb. So, the plane came and the Germans ran into the orchard, and I fled for who knows how long, into the night.

He covered himself with dirt, digging himself his second grave of the day, and hid beneath the ground until he felt the coast was clear. But this story of how he "ran away from death" was only the beginning of his remarkable story of survival. "Wherever we turned, death was behind us," he recalled.

Source: Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine (Indiana University Press, 2013)