Emmanuil Kazakevich was born in 1913 in Kremenchug, Ukraine. His father Henekh was a well-known Communist kulturtrager, an importer of culture, into Yiddish. The family lived at various times in Gomel, Moscow, and Kiev and, from 1924, in Kharkov, then capital of Ukraine. Many Yiddish cultural figures – poets, prose writers, and actors frequently visited their home. Nourished by this environment, from childhood Emmanuil exhibited both musical and literary talent, as well as leadership qualities. He studied at a technical school but was more interested in literature. He wrote stories and poems and translated many works into Yiddish. In 1930 Emmanuil and his parents moved to the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan, where his father became editor of the Yiddish newspaper Birobidzhaner shtern. Emmanuil worked on building sites, helped establish a Jewish kolkhoz, and was head of the Birobidzhan State Jewish Theater. During that period he wrote many works in Yiddish and his first collection of poems appeared. In 1937, when he and his family were on vacation in Moscow, he learned that arrests of many members of the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia were taking place in Birobidzhan as part of the Great Terror of 1937-1938 and that the authorities were looking for him. For one and a half years Kazakevich, his wife, and their two daughters hid in a Belarusian village and, then, in an area near Moscow until the wave of mass arrests came to a halt in late 1938.
His second book of poems was published the following year and, in 1941, his Yiddish novel in verse appeared and a play of his was staged by the Birobidzhan Jewish theater. At the same time he first began writing in Russian.
With the outbreak of the Soviet-German war on June 22, 1941, despite his hereditary near-sightedness, which should have exempted him from military service, in July Kazakevich volunteered for the Narodnoe opolchenie(a kind of national guard), in which many members of the creative intelligentsia were serving. He became a private in a writers' unit. Many members of the Narodnoe opolchenie were killed at this time but Kazakevich succeeded in breaking out of encirclement and until December 1941 he took part in battle where he was wounded. Then Kazakevich was sent to study in a course to train junior officers. Afterwards, he wanted to go straight to the front. However his superiors did not allow this because they wanted him to edit the local army newspaper. Realizing that his chances of being sent to fight were small, Kazakevich set off without authorization for the front, taking the risk of being punished by court martial. At the front, in the summer of 1943, he became a military intelligence agent. He reached the rank of commander of an intelligence division and, then, of assistant head of intelligence of the 47th Army. (In 1945 this Army's intelligence head was the Jewish career officer Colonel Boris Malkin.) Kazakevich himself participated in diversionary operations, parachuting behind enemy lines. In fighting against German units, he and his men destroyed a number of enemy targets. In February 1944, for successfully carrying out assignments, during which he demonstrated great courage, he was awarded the Order of the Red Star and, in August, the Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd class, and in February 1945 – the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st class. In 1944 it was rumored that he had been recognized as a Hero of the Soviet Union. In any case, the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee prepared to publish an article about this by Moyshe Alberton. It is possible, as happened frequently during the war, that the initial recommendation of the nominee's army superiors was not approved by the higher authorities in Moscow. Kazakevich ended the war with the rank of captain.
After he was demobilized from the Red Army in the spring of 1946, Kazakevich returned to literary activity. He then completely abandoned Yiddish for Russian. In 1947 he published the brief story "Zvezda" ("Star"), about Soviet intelligence operatives during the war. This work was very popular with readers and for it, in 1948, Kazakevich received the Stalin Prize, the highest literary award in the country. The story was translated into Yiddish and published in that language although Kazakevich, apparently, did not return to writing in Yiddish. In 1961, in his diary, he noted the reasons for his decision not to continue writing in his native tongue:
"… The only problem is that it [Yiddish] is not needed by anyone. To write in a language that is alive and full of life, in which people, workers and farmers, speak and produce items of material value – to write in such a language one can do this either better or worse; [but] after the tragedy that our people and language have suffered one can write only brilliantly in a dying or already dead language. Otherwise, it is of no use to anyone. But! There is a dialectic here. One can write brilliantly only in a language that is full of life, one that is living and developing. When literature becomes the private matter of 50 or 500 people, it loses its main function, it ceases to be a means of communication and a means of improving society. Having lost this quality, it ceases to be literature." (Boris Frezinskii, "The Tragedy of Emmanuil Kazakevich," Narod knigi v mire knig (The People of the Book in the World of Books), No. 102 (February 2013), pp. 3–4, in Russian).
Kazakevich's 1948 story "Dvoe v stepi" ("Two in the Steppe"), which one of his contemporaries called "pages of the truth about the war which were most rare during those years," was fiercely criticized in the Party press but that did not prevent his next story "Vesna na Odere" ("Spring on the Oder River," 1949) from being awarded a second Stalin Prize. Subsequently the author ceased writing about the war. In the mid-1950s he was editor-in-chief of the journal Literaturnaia Moskva (Literary Moscow), which published many works that reflected new post-Stalinist liberal trends in Soviet literature. In 1958 he refused to participate in official meeting where many authors criticized Boris Pasternak, who had published his book Doctor Zhivago abroad and received a Nobel Prize. Such activities on the part of Kazakevich required another, a non-military kind of courage.
Emmanuil Kazakevich died in 1962.