Efim Ryklis was born in 1905 in the hamlet of Zhura in Ukraine. In 1920, he completed the fifth grade of school in the town of Rybnitsa (on the Ukrainian-Moldovan border). Until that time, he had spoken virtually no Russian – only Yiddish, Ukrainian, and Romanian. However, in 1922, driven by his strong desire to become a military officer, he enrolled in the 2nd Moscow Artillery School, where he had to master Russian, along with the special military disciplines. After only two years of study, he was able to speak Russian perfectly. In 1929, having completed the military school, he joined the Communist Party, and went on to serve as a platoon commander. Like all career military officers, he was posted to a different region of the USSR, and had to adapt to his new environment. For five years, he lived and served in the Russian Far East. The commander of the Special Far Eastern Army, Marshal Vasily Blyukher, awarded Ryklis with a personalized pocket watch.
In 1937, Ryklis was accused of espionage and arrested as a "Romanian spy," which was a frequent charge during the Stalinist purges. However, he was released in 1939 thanks to his value as a military specialist, and sent to fight in the "Winter War" against Finland as the commander of an artillery division.
In 1941, he was posted to the Russian Far North in the rank of regimental commander, and it was there that he met the outbreak of the Soviet-German War. In August 1941, his regiment, as part of the Karelian Front, defended the Rybachiy and Sredniy Peninsulas near Murmansk, at the northernmost point of the frontline. For this operation, Major Ryklis was awarded the Order of the Red Banner (he would receive another order of this type in September 1943). In October 1943, having been promoted to colonel, he took part in the battles for the liberation of Kiev, where he was able to effectively coordinate the activity of his own division and that of three captured enemy batteries. After the battles for Kiev, Ryklis was awarded the Order of Suvorov, 2nd class. The division under Ryklis' command took part in the Soviet offensive near Sevsk (on the Russian-Ukrainian border), and he went on to cross five rivers (the Desna, Sozh, Dnieper, Western Bug, and San) with his troops. In a mere month of fighting, the artillery corps in which Ryklis served advanced more than 300 kilometers westward, liberating over 500 settlements.
In 1945, the 27th Rifle Corps, under the command of Ryklis, crossed the Oder River and took part in the breakthrough of the enemy defenses on the Vistula bridgehead. Afterward, Ryklis was awarded the Order of Lenin. He met V-E Day in Prague. In the postwar period, he continued to serve in the Red Army. In December 1954, he joined the reserve in the rank of colonel.
Ryklis died in 1970.
Ryklis in Literature and Memoirs
The exploits of Ryklis' troops were immortalized after a visit by the famous Soviet poet and journalist Konstantin Simonov to the Sredniy Peninsula in 1941. Ryklis told him the story of Ivan Loskutov, the son of a very close friend of his. Lieutenant Loskutov had served under Ryklis' command, and was sent by him behind enemy lines to correct the fire of the battery. At some point, Loskutov came under fire, and Ryklis had to aim his guns at the exact coordinates where Loskutov was hiding. Fortunately, he did not die, and rejoined the division shortly thereafter. Simonov was so impressed by the story that he wrote a long poem titled "The Artillery Officer's Son," which was published in the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda ("Red Star"). The poem became very popular, and was even included in the school curriculum. Simonov knew that Ryklis was Jewish, but the story lacks any overt markers of ethnicity, and the poet went so far as to change the obviously Russian name Ivan to the more neutral-sounding Lyonka (a diminutive of the masculine name Leonid).
Konstantin Simonov, "The Artillery Officer's Son" [a fragment]
The earth and the rocks were flying,
Thick smoke billowed up to the sky.
It now seemed all but certain
That none would come back alive.
The third signal comes on the radio:
— The Germans have cornered me.
Keep shelling the four-ten quadrant!
Keep firing with all you've got!
The Major grew pale when he heard it:
"Four-ten" was the very spot
Where his own beloved Lyonka
Was supposed to be stationed right now.
Forgetting that he was a father
And giving no outward sign,
The Major kept commanding,
Looking composed and calm:
"Fire!" — the shells were flying.
"Fire!" — quickly, load the gun!
Six batteries were shelling
The sector marked "four-ten."
For an hour, the radio was silent,
And then the signal came on:
— I've been deafened by the explosions.
Keep firing, as I have said.
I firmly believe that our cannons
Will never do me any harm.
The Germans are running. Keep shooting!
Give me a sea of fire! <…>
The foot troops went on the offensive.
By midday, the rocky hill
Was cleared of enemy forces,
Since all the Germans had fled.
The hillside was strewn with dead bodies.
Lyonka, with bandaged head,
Was found in a nearby gulley
— Wounded, but still alive.
An essay about Ryklis
A collection of essays by Konstantin Simonov was published in 1951, at the height of the late Stalinist antisemitic campaign in the USSR. At the time, written descriptions of Jews tended to be very negative. One of the essays in the collection devoted several pages to Efim Samsonovich Ryklis and his activities during the Soviet-German War. In this text, Simonov explicitly mentioned his protagonist's Jewishness in a blatantly propagandistic context, meant to underscore the way the Soviet regime had enabled him to achieve professional success: "A Jewish boy from Moldavia, who spoke poor Russian, enlisted in the Red Army and became a cadet at one of our [Soviet] first artillery schools." Simonov went on to recall his frontline meeting with Ryklis, describing him in glowing terms:
Ryklis opened a tin can with a knife, and, after pouring vodka into two "artillery goblets" (the heads of shells), he said pensively:
-- Here's to my twentieth anniversary. I'm actually glad to mark it here. The day before yesterday, it was exactly twenty years since my enlistment in the army. That day, I had no time to celebrate, and nobody to celebrate with. Today, we can do it retroactively. And now, it is time to go to bed!
He lay down and closed his eyes, but a second later he opened them, as though having recalled something.
-- There is a battery here, with which I have an old score to settle. It has moved from the place where I used to be. Back then, we referred to it as "target #7," but it has since been renamed "target #15." Old enemies keep pursuing me. But never fear, I will have my revenge yet!
He turned on his side and was asleep at once, like a man who had not rested his head for a long time.
On the morrow, I was to witness the lieutenant-colonel's revenge on his old enemy.
We had been sitting at the observation post for more than two hours. <…> The lieutenant-colonel was listening to the distant peals of gunfire.
-- It is the fifteenth, -- he said confidently, -- but it has once again moved closer, and a little to the left.
He quickly made several corrections to the earlier data, and, curtly passing down the order to the telephone operator, he began to grope for his old, invisible foe among the snowy crags.
The German artillery volleys were followed by our own.
Ryklis, making new corrections, seemed to be closing in on the German battery.
However, the Germans, too, were getting increasingly accurate in their fire. A few shells burst some forty paces from our position. Fragments were whistling beyond the stone wall.
But Ryklis paid no heed to any of this. He was busy, far too busy, for such trifles. He had finally pinpointed the position of his old enemy, and was trying to corner him.
His orders grew increasingly harsh and abrupt, followed by the ever more frequent blasts of our guns. The faces of all those present at the observation post shone with the excitement of this artillery duel. It was an obvious, brutal contest. We had to get to the Germans before they could get to us. The last shell burst right in front of the wall. The lieutenant-colonel inhaled through his nose. The air smelled of smoke and gunpowder. He kept gazing intently through the telescope, and, having made the last correction, he ordered to fire a volley. The battery behind us thundered. Ryklis put on his gloves and closed the map-case, with the air of a man who had finished his business, and was about to leave. We gave him a silent, questioning look.
From: Konstantin Simonov. In These Years: Journalism (1941-1950). Moscow, 1951. pp. 31-33.