On November 29, 1969, Yakov Grigorevich Kreizer, the Soviet army general who commanded the Third Army in the Battle of Moscow and led forces in the defense of both Stalingrad and Smolensk, died. Promoted in 1962 to the rank of general of the army (equivalent to field marshal in the British army), Kreizer was the only Jewish officer to reach such a status in the period following Stalin's great purge (1936-39).
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Kreizer was born November 5, 1905, in Voronezh, in western Russia; his family had been permitted to live outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement because of his grandfather’s service as a cantonist in the czarist army. He joined the Red Army in 1921 and the Communist Party in 1925, and in the years preceding World War II, he advanced gradually in the army from the rank of platoon commander to commander of the Moscow Proletarian Division.
Kreizer distinguished himself during the war for his performance as a leader in the field, an area of weakness in the Soviet military. In July 1941, his division, stationed along the Minsk-Moscow highway, held off the German forces led by Heinz Guderian, which were superior in numbers, air power and tanks. When finally forced to retreat, Kreizer led his forces to Orsha, where in the subsequent battle, they resisted Guderian’s panzer corps for another 12 days. The psychological value of these accomplishments was as great as their strategic worth, as they overturned the myth of German invincibility that was prevalent among Soviet forces. They also led to Kreizer’s advancement to the rank of major general and his appointment as commander of the Field Army. On July 21, 1941, he was also awarded the honor of Hero of the Soviet Union by Stalin, the first Jew to receive this title during the war.
Kreizer went on to command Soviet forces in the battles of Smolensk, Moscow and Stalingrad. In the winter of 1942-43, he played a key role in preventing the forces of Wehrmacht General Erich Manstein from relieving the trapped German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. He later played key roles in the liberation of Crimea, Belorussia and Lithuania. He was wounded twice during the war.
In 1961, Kreizer was appointed commander of Soviet forces in the Far East, but that followed more than a decade during which he had seen his career stalled. That may have been because of his Jewish identity. He had joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the war, and in 1953, had refused to sign a letter supporting the campaign against the defendants in the so-called Doctors Plot. The JAFC was a body of distinguished Jews who served to promote the good name of the Soviet Union worldwide during the war, but which Stalin turned on, disbanding the group and persecuting its members, after the establishment of Israel, in 1948. The Doctors Plot, in 1953, was a dramatic fabrication of charges of treason against a group of Moscow physicians, most of them Jews, that was accompanied by a wave of anti-Semitic propaganda. That anti-Jewish campaign was halted only by Stalin’s death, in March 1953.
Nikita Khrushchev knew Kreizer personally from the battle of Stalingrad, and it was when he became party first secretary that the general’s advancement in the military resumed, first with commands of several military districts, and eventually with his appointment as commander-in-chief of the Soviet armies in the Far East. In 1962, he was advanced to the rank of general of the army, and he joined the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, the country’s highest legislative body, but shortly after that he became ill, and was forced to take on less strenuous duties. He died at the age of 64.