At the height of the first intifada, the neighborhood around Jewish settlements in the West Bank was more unsettling than ever. At any moment, a car with Israeli license plates driving along the highway could be shot from an ambush or pelted with Molotov cocktails. However, despite the seriousness of the situation, every Thursday a doctor drove into this dangerous zone in his personal Volvo. The doctor, Ion Lazarevich Degen, was not only a first-class physician, but also a veteran of World War II, one of the best Soviet tank aces. Ion Degen, a scientist, doctor and famous writer, immigrated to Israel from Kyiv at the age of 52, not wanting to live in the lies of the Soviet system.
The journey to Eretz Israel was long for Ion Degen. He was born on May 31, 1925 in Mogilev-Podolsky in the family of Lazar (Akhiezer) Degen, a paramedic, and nurse Klara (Khaya) Yulievna Frenkel. This was not Lazar Degen’s first marriage; he was 36 years older than his young wife. In 1928, the head of the family died. Jonah's mother had to lift him to his feet alone.
One of the most terrible episodes of Ion Degen's childhood was an attempted kidnapping during the Ukrainian Holodomor. Walking after distributing soup under the railway bridge, next to which there was a gypsy camp, Ion saw a dark-haired teenager running towards him. "Do you want to eat? Come to us - we’ll feed you!” For many months, Ion was hungry, but then he refused, sensing something was wrong. When persuasion did not work, the gypsy kid grabbed him by the hand and dragged him. Having contrived, Ion hit the aggressor in the face with all his might with a bowler hat and ran away. After some time, rumors spread throughout Mogilev-Podolsky that those same gypsies had been arrested for kidnapping several children, whom they killed and ate, boiling them in their large cauldrons.
At the age of 12, Degen was already working as a blacksmith’s assistant - it was difficult for the family to feed themselves on just his mother’s salary. But, although life was not easy for the family, Klara Yulievna tried to give her son an education. Ion did well in all subjects, giving particular preference to zoology, botany and literature, but his behavior did not fit into any framework. The leader of all boy gangs, a hooligan, Ion, with his behavior in the fifth grade, even forced his mother to move with him to Odessa for a year. She hoped that her son would stay at the local school, but he was expelled from there too. In total, Ion Lazarevich was expelled from school seven times.
The morning of June 22, 1941, Ion Degen was a youth camp organizer near Mogilev-Podolsky. A convinced Komsomol member, since childhood he was always busy on the territory of the local 21st border detachment, where he learned to handle weapons. Without hesitating even a minute, Ion ran to the military registration and enlistment office and demanded to enroll him as a volunteer. “We don’t conscript children into the army!” the military commissar did not talk to the ardent young man. Degen was not at all embarrassed. In the shortest possible time, he organized a platoon at the city committee of the Komsomol, which became part of the volunteer destruction battalion. It consisted of Komsomol members of local schools, and almost all were Jews. His mother begged Ion to stay with her, but he did not obey.
Volunteer fighters became a part of the regular rifle companies of the 130th Infantry Division. As he knew the Maxim machine gun well, Ion was appointed number one of the machine gun crew. Soon, in the Vapnyarka area, the 130th Infantry Division entered into battle with the Germans. The defenders fought the advancing Nazis desperately, but to no avail. And after two weeks they were forgotten, stopping the supply of ammunition and food. Mass desertion began, including command personnel, so Ion Degen, as a reliable and determined fighter, was appointed platoon commander by the soldiers themselves.
Soon, between Uman and Khristinovka, the division was surrounded. Local conscripts fled to their homes, and yesterday’s schoolchildren from Mogilev-Podolsky began to make their way to their own. The Germans were encountered at every turn, and Degen had to participate in hand-to-hand combat. His pre-war passion for sports helped him out. In the end, only two remained from the entire platoon: Ion Degen and Sasha Soiferman. They fought their way out of encirclement for several weeks, but lost each other when they tried to cross the Dnieper near Kremenchug. By chance, they will meet after the war, two young disabled veterans...
Thus, on the left bank of the Dnieper, the exhausted guy found himself alone. As it turned out, the Germans were already on the left bank. Ion Degen was saved from the Nazis snooping around everywhere by the Ukrainian family of Grigoruks. For several days, they treated him, wounded in the leg, hiding him in their attic. Risking their lives, the Grigoruks and their relatives were able to transport the wounded Degen to Poltava, which was still in the hands of the Red Army. Subsequent searches for the savior family were fruitless.
Ion was evacuated to a hospital located in the Chelyabinsk region. The doctors managed to save his wounded leg, but the guy who had already fought in the army was still not accepted into the army - he was too old to get out. He had absolutely nowhere to go, but unexpectedly a Georgian captain, who had once been the commander of the Mogilev-Podolsk border outpost and knew Ion well, came to the rescue. And the young man went to his home, to the Georgian village of Shroma. In Shrom, the guy worked as a tractor driver until June 1942, when he heard that there were armored trains at the nearby Natanebi station.
At the station, there were indeed “Sibiryak” and “Zheleznodorozhnik Kuzbass” - armored trains of the 42nd separate division under the command of Major Mikhail Arkusha. The division's combat mission was to cover the direction to Mozdok and Beslan. Negotiations about admission to the division were quick. The major asked Degen: “Do you know the map?” - "I know". Having accurately mapped the dictated combat situation, Ion received an offer to go to the major as an adjutant. But the young man convinced the commander to send him on reconnaissance.
Siberians served in reconnaissance, hunters who could do absolutely everything, causing Ion’s genuine delight. One of the main tasks of the scouts was to adjust the fire of the guns mounted on the armored trains. In response, the Germans mercilessly bombed armored trains from the air, and often threw tanks against the armored trains, which were left without infantry and aviation cover. The battles were terrible, some of them took place high in the mountains, where an avalanche threatened every time.
For the battles in the Caucasus, Ion Degen received his first medal “For Courage” and the Order of the Red Banner, but he did not have the opportunity to wear them for long. Together with a friend, Siberian Stepan Labukhin, they went to steal molasses from containers that were being prepared to be blown up before the German attack on Beslan. The scouts exchanged the extracted molasses from local women for Ossetian vodka. And then, as luck would have it, some Caucasian with an impudent face showed up: “Are you speculating!?” Degen took the question to heart: it seemed to him that the Caucasian was hinting at his nationality. A fight broke out, which ended in the Beslan NKVD department. The NKVD sergeant yelled: “What?! Speculation isn't enough for you!? They raised their hand against the first secretary of the regional party committee!” The execution was inevitable, but a special officer from the armored division unexpectedly came to the rescue, connecting all his connections at the top. The first medal and order were never returned to Degen.
A few days later, on October 15, 1942, Ion Lazarević was wounded again. There were four of them: Ion, radio operator Lyuba, and fighters Stepan Labukhin and Nikolai Guteev went to reconnaissance of the German formations. Having completed the task, early in the morning the soldiers returned along the banks of the Terek. The Germans and their equipment were so densely packed that the scouts had to “take down” the German sentries. The biggest one was taken on by the big man Stepan Labukhin, the other was hit from above with a dagger by Degen. Blood gushed from the German’s jugular vein with such force that it splashed Jonah from head to toe. From what he saw, he began to vomit violently, which betrayed the Soviet intelligence officers. The Germans opened heavy fire on them. Degen’s secret love, 18-year-old radio operator Lyuba, died, and Kolya Guteev fell, struck by an enemy bullet. Ion was wounded in the leg, but he was saved by Stepan Labukhin, who was able to pull out not only Ion, but also the body of the deceased radio operator.
At the end of December 1942, Ion Lazarevich was discharged from the hospital. He was sent to the 21st tank training regiment, located in the Georgian town of Shulaveri. This regiment, according to an accelerated program, trained tank crews for marching companies. But at the regimental headquarters they announced to Degen that they were sending him to study at a tank school. He categorically did not want to go, but the command clearly explained to him that there are orders in the army, and they must be followed.
In the 1st Kharkov Tank School, stationed in the Uzbek Chirchik, strict discipline reigned. But, despite the drill, Ion Lazarevich only had the opportunity to shoot from a tank three times during his studies. In the early spring of 1944, he passed his final exams and went to Nizhny Tagil to obtain the T-34-85 tank. Degen had to command nice guys, but very poorly prepared. Not only were the newly minted tank crews poorly trained in their military specialties, but they were also staggering from hunger. All the way to the front line, Degen trained the crew and fattened them up by hook or by crook, getting food.
On the eve of Operation Bagration, Degen's tank arrived at the disposal of the 2nd Separate Guards Tank Breakthrough Brigade of the 3rd Belorussian Front under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Efim Dukhovny. It was one of ten special units that existed on each of the fronts. The tank crews of the Guards Brigade were known as real “kamikazes”, whose task was to break through the front for tank formations. It was difficult to survive in such a unit, but Ion Degen was lucky. Hence his nickname in the battalion - “Lucky”.
The war as a tank commander began for him during the breakthrough of the front between Vitebsk and Orsha. With the fighting, Degen's T-34 reached the outskirts of Vilnius. There, on July 8, 1944, the brigade commander himself called the guard junior lieutenant. Degen was ordered to rush to Vilnius at the head of three tanks, as support for one of the regiments of the 144th Infantry Division. Already on the approach to the city, the tankers heard the sounds of heavy fighting. As it turned out later, the Germans were fought by the Poles from the Home Army, whom the Soviet command was clearly in no hurry to help.
The regiment commander, to whom Degen arrived at the head of three tanks in the flight, set a combat mission. According to him, it was no big deal - the defense in the old town of Vilnius was held by up to a hundred infantry, a couple of German tanks and several guns. In reality, no sooner had Degen’s tanks entered the Vilnius streets than German artillerymen began firing at them from all sides. The command tank was disabled almost immediately, so Ion Lazarevich switched to another vehicle and began destroying the Nazis’ firing points with tracks and a machine gun. There were few shells, they had to be saved.
Poles fought alongside Soviet soldiers. Seeing the depressed appearance of the Polish officers, Degen volunteered to help them. The Polish commander asked to clear the neighboring square of German machine gunners. Degen complied with the request, although for such unauthorized cooperation with the Akovites, Smersh could easily have closely involved with him.
The battles for the Vilnius streets were terrible. In the midst of one of them, on July 12, 1944, Degen at the last moment crushed a German anti-aircraft gun that was firing at him. The shell only struck the tank's turret. Lost after this in the maze of streets, Degen soon heard someone trying to open his command hatch. As it turned out, several Germans jumped onto the stern of the tank and tried to open the turret and throw a grenade inside. The tankers were helped by Soviet infantrymen who saw this picture from a neighboring house and shot the uninvited landing force from the windows. For these battles, Degen received not only the Order of the Patriotic War, II degree, but also the Polish “Grunwald Cross”, as well as Poland’s highest military award - the Order of Virtuti militari (“Military Valor”). Polish awards found their hero already in 1990, when the Polish Republic had already emerged from the influence of the Soviet Union. The grateful Poles, as it turned out, remembered exactly whose tank helped them in the battles for the city.
For each destroyed enemy tank, the crew commander was paid 500 rubles. Ion Lazarevich estimated that he knocked out at least 12 enemy tanks and 4 self-propelled guns. Serious money... Although it was difficult to name the exact amount - tankers were not always able to see the results of their work in the heat of battle.
Anything happened at the front. One day Degen was lucky to capture a German Panther. After the battle, he decided to try out the legendary German technology. The command stopped the speed-driver by literally pulling Degen by the scruff of the neck from the turret of a German tank. The commander was indignant: “Junior lieutenant, what are you doing! They could have knocked you down!”
Ion Lazarevich also liked to joke how he once “broke all the world records for drape,” fleeing with other tanks from nine of his own attack aircraft. Soviet Ils planes flew in a circle and bombed Soviet tank crews, without having contact with them. It is interesting that the Germans knew about the conditional signal - a white rocket, which they launched, deceiving the pilots. The commander of the rifle regiment, which the tankers were supposed to support, shouted at the top of his lungs: “Cowards! They escaped!” He only calmed down after receiving a good kick in the ass from Guard Junior Lieutenant Degen when he decided to hide under his tank from sudden shelling. The lieutenant colonel, who lay down directly under the tank’s evacuation hatch, located in the bottom of the vehicle, was so frightened that he mistook Degen’s savory blow for a shrapnel hitting a soft spot.
One day, Ion Degen’s crew confronted a “Tiger” dug in in a field near the village. When the Soviet tank crews tried to lean out from behind the stables, which were located at the exit from the village, the German immediately fired at them from his powerful cannon. Suddenly Degen saw a strange picture: right across the open area, on the left side of the Tiger, a column of ten brand new Thirty-Fours was blithely walking. The German was not taken aback and immediately knocked out the lead and trailing vehicles. The massacre began. Ignoring caution, Ion Lazarevich decided to urgently go to the rescue. With great difficulty, maneuvering across the field in an attempt to dodge the Tiger blanks, he managed to bring the four remaining T-34s to cover. As it turned out, someone ordered completely “immature” lieutenants, graduates of a tank school, to move to a position that was deep in the rear of the Germans.
On January 20, 1945, Degen got lost again. Having walked tens of kilometers behind the front line, he and another tank rolled into a large city. Seeing in front of him luxurious houses and a tram traveling peacefully with passengers, the guard junior lieutenant ordered to leave urgently. As it turned out, Soviet tank crews entered the capital of East Prussia, the city of Koenigsberg, completely unhindered. They left not so quietly, having crushed and rammed a huge number of cars. Already at the exit from Koenigsberg, right at the edge of the forest, they saw a German self-propelled gun and the crew having lunch next to it. A shot - and the self-propelled gun flared up like a torch. The Germans scattered, and the Soviet tankers hid behind a long brick building, which covered their safe retreat. Ion Degen personally presented a report on his adventures in Konigsberg to the front commander, General Chernyakhovsky, who watched from the edge of the forest as Degen’s tank burned a German self-propelled gun.
During the last battle of Ion Lazarevich, which took place the next day, January 21, 1945, a real miracle occurred. Battalion commander Dorosh set Degen the task of leading a combined company of tanks, blocking the Gumbinen-Insterburg highway and taking up defensive positions until the troops arrived. The order to march without support and cover to a poorly explored German fortified point was certainly criminal.
The combined group of 12 vehicles was forced to move forward with difficulty. No one responded to the command transmitted by radio. The subordinates had to drum on the armor with a crowbar, sprinkling threats with choice obscenities. The tankers did not want to die, but for failure to comply with the order they would still have been expelled by their own command. Walking at the head of the column, Degen tried to spot the Hitler Youth armed with Faustpatrons who had settled in front. These young soldiers of the Fuhrer were such a nuisance to the tank crews that the crew simply did not notice the 75mm StuG III self-propelled gun standing off to the side of the highway. But Ion Lazarevich suddenly felt strong anxiety and, unexpectedly for himself, commanded: “Tower to the right, armor-piercing - fire!” Hitler's Art-Sturm and Degen's tank fired simultaneously.
At first, Ion thought that a shell had exploded in the tank breech: he did not see either the German self-propelled gun or its shot. The gun commander, Zakaria Zagidullin, was wounded, but conscious. The rest are dead. Degen tried to pull out the seriously wounded Zagidullin, but they were hit by machine gun fire and died in the tank. Having fallen from the armor, the guard lieutenant heard the Germans very close. He was saved by senior lieutenant Fedorov, who arrived in time in his car. Over time, he came to the conclusion that the Almighty then intervened in his fate. He could not use any intuition to explain the unexpected decision to turn the turret around and shoot at random.
The seriously wounded Degen was evacuated to the hospital. He was considered hopelessly ill. When the professor arrived and examined the patient, he ordered the head of the hospital to immediately inject him with penicillin. Ion Lazarevich was conscious and heard the boss begin to protest: “What penicillin? He will die in a few hours!” Imported penicillin was worth its weight in gold, but the professor snapped: “Inject it. That's an order". Ion Lazarevich considered this day to be his second birthday.
Ion Degen celebrated Victory Day from his hospital bed in the city of Kirov. The veterans celebrated well, but Degen, a survivor of the fire of war, began to be tormented by anxiety for his future. Disabled, without education, he painfully pondered what he should do in peaceful life. Inspired by the noble feat of doctors saving the lives of soldiers, he decided to become a doctor. Ion Degen was discharged from the hospital on June 6, 1945. By this time, his mother was able to find him, from whom he fled to the front in 1941. She didn’t recognize her son when they met: he had changed so much during the war years.
Within a month, he managed to prepare and receive a matriculation certificate in Mogilev-Podolsk. Having successfully passed the exams, he entered the Kiev Medical Institute. He studied in Kyiv for a short time: the distance between the buildings of the institute was so great that he, a disabled war veteran, could not possibly come to class on time. After lying in the hospital for some time due to a suddenly opened wound, Degen began to think about transferring to another institute. Ion Lazarevich did not go to Lviv, which seemed to him a very “German” city. His alma mater became the Medical Institute in Chernivtsi.
From 1951 to 1954, Ion Lazarevich worked as a resident at the Kyiv Institute of Orthopedics, then as an orthopedic traumatologist in Kyiv hospitals. Having married Lyusa Grinshpun, an architecture student, the young doctor soon became a father - the couple had a son, Yuri.
In 1959, Ion Lazarevich was the first in the USSR to perform forearm replantation surgery. In May 1965, he defended his PhD thesis in Moscow, at the Central Institute of Traumatology and Orthopedics. After his defense, people congratulated him, and along with everyone else, a short man in a gray suit. “Thank you, young man, for your kind words about your supervisor,” the man praised Degen. “Thank you too!”, Ion Lazarevich smiled, “Why should I?” As it turned out, this elderly man, Vasily Chaklin, was the professor who in January 1945 ordered him to be injected with penicillin. When asked why he then decided to treat the hopeless, Chaklin looked meaningfully at Degen and pointed his finger to the sky.
In 1973, Ion Degen defended the first doctoral work in the USSR on the use of magnetic therapy in the treatment of orthopedic diseases. Despite his career successes, he wanted to live in the Soviet Union less and less.
At the front, he always emphasized his Jewishness. Even in the most difficult moments, he did not show that he was scared, so as not to play along with the anti-Semites who told tales about Jews waiting out the war in the rear. Even after his first wound, in a hospital in the Urals, Degen was faced with the completely wild beliefs of people. Meeting the heads of the hospital - local women from the collective farm - he identified himself to them as a Jew from Ukraine. “Stop joking like that,” the women were indignant, “you don’t have horns on your head!” Degen began to agitate collective farmers, citing Marx as an example, but this did not make the proper impression on them. And when the conversation turned to Jesus Christ, they completely cut the young man off: “Stop talking this nonsense.”
The commanders several times “wooed” Degen to become a Hero of the Soviet Union, but each time he received more “modest” awards. Moreover, usually all these attempts by the command stopped at the level of the political department of the brigade, which did not hide its reluctance to assign such an honorary title to a Jew. The last explanation came to Degen in 1965, on the 20th anniversary of Victory Day: the Kiev regional military registration and enlistment office again requested awards from the department of the Presidium of the Supreme Council. Soon they responded: since Degen had already been awarded a large number of awards, it was decided not to award him the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
At the dawn of his medical career, in 1951, Degen again had to take the fight - he, a Jew, was flatly refused to be accepted into a clinical residency in traumatology. Then there was a fight with the director of the institute, where he was sent to improve his knowledge. Having suggested that Degen bought the medals in Tashkent, the fat official received a punch in the face right in his office. I had to fight literally and figuratively for loved ones. When his mother-in-law, a first-class microbiologist, was once again not hired because of her nationality, his son-in-law immediately showed up at the head physician’s office. “If you don’t hire Adele Mironovna Rosenberg, tomorrow you’ll say goodbye to your life! And you can start preparing right now!” warned former intelligence officer and tanker Degen. On the same day, the mother-in-law was accepted into the staff.
The Soviet regime was unfair not only to Jews. She couldn't stand any truth. From a young age, Ion Degen was interested in poetry. In the summer of 1945, while walking around Moscow, he decided to go to the Committee for the Protection of Copyrights to report the authorship of a then popular song, which was composed by his deceased tank comrade. The employees thanked Degen, asking if he wrote himself. "Writing!" - “Read to us!” The young poet’s lyrics so impressed the assembled employees that the next day he was invited to the Central House of Writers. The entire literary elite, led by Konstantin Simonov, gathered to listen to him. After Degen’s speech, Simonov and other elders of Soviet literature began to disparage the veteran. He especially got it for his poem “My comrade, in mortal agony.” “This is looting, Kiplingism!” Simonov thundered at the poet, indignant at the scene in which Degen’s lyrical hero takes off his fallen friend’s felt boots. The only person who quietly clapped in approval was the poet Sergei Orlov, a fellow veteran tankman, sitting by the door.
The young poet was terribly offended by Simonov, and only many years later he heard an amazing story from Yevgeny Yevtushenko. As it turned out, after the public defamation of Degen, the MGB opened a case against him: the security officers did not like his poem “Random Raid on Enemy Rear Lines,” which talked about a certain “commander” who was undeservedly stealing victory from the soldiers. In the thief, the KGB agents saw Stalin himself, which amounted to an inevitable guilty verdict. And Konstantin Simonov stood up for Degen - he was able to convince the security officers that for the lieutenant, the “commander” could only be the brigade commander sitting at the headquarters, but not the generalissimo, Comrade Stalin.
During the years of post-war anti-Semitic hysteria, Degen gradually lost his former fiery love for the communist idea. Back in 1965, when the famous doctor and writer, Mark Tverskoy, was visiting Degen, he quite openly encouraged him to leave for Israel. At that time, this proposal sounded like sheer madness, but Ion Lazarevich was extremely serious.
In November 1977, he, his wife Lyusya and son Yuri left for Israel. The former communist, holder of Soviet military orders and medals, happily left the evil empire, which was masquerading as a socialist state with the fairest system. Degin and his family were met by Mark Tverskoy, who heeded the advice of his senior comrade, and in 1974 repatriated to Eretz Israel.
In Israel, Degen learned Hebrew, worked in his specialty for many years and became one of the leading orthopedists and traumatologists in the country. From his pen came a large monograph devoted to magnetic therapy. Ion Lazarevich was recognized as “one of our own” by veterans of the Israeli wars, becoming the only Soviet tanker accepted into the “Society of Israeli Tankmen Honored for Heroism.”
He continued to write poems, stories, sketches, essays, and books of memoirs, publishing them in magazines in various countries. In Israel, Ion Lazarevich belonged to the right in his political views. It was his convictions and perseverance that brought him to the conflict zone during the first intifada. Degen was not afraid of anything.
At the end of December 2014, Ion Lazarevich was honored at the Grand Kremlin Palace. In a solemn ceremony, he was awarded the “Fiddler on the Roof” prize from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, in the most prestigious category – “Man-Legend”.
Ion Degen passed away on April 28, 2017. Reacting to poems and articles written about his life, Ion Lazarevich always protested against “panegyrics” addressed to him. “I was an ordinary coward and, like everyone else, I dreamed of surviving the war,” this is how Degen modestly described his exploits. We, grateful descendants, will always remember him as a great Jew and person.
Bibliography and sources:
1. Ion Degen. From the house of slavery. Publishing house: “Moriya”, Israel, 1986.
2. Mikhail Gauzner. Warrior, doctor, poet, personality. Ion Degen // Chaika Magazine, July 2, 2023
3. Degen Ion Lazarevich // Foundation for the Preservation of Historical Memory Electronic periodical “I remember”.
4. The last poet of the Great War. Interview with Ion Degen
1925 – 2017