Esfir (Esya) Gurevich was born in 1921 in the town of Tatarsk (in present-day Smolensk Oblast). Esfir's father Solomon was a cobbler. The family later moved to a larger town, Yartsevo, which lay outside the former Pale of Settlement. There, the children could pursue their education.
In 1938, following the lead of her older brother, Esfir moved to Moscow, where she began to study at the Faculty of Philology of the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute.
In late June 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Esya Gurevich was one year away from graduation (she would complete her studies ahead of time after the outbreak of war), while her older brother Lev was passing his final exams at the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of the same Institute. Lev joined the People's Militia, and was soon taken prisoner by the enemy. The family lost contact with him. They later learned that Lev had miraculously survived, escaped, and joined the partisans.
Together with her fellow students, Esya Gurevich traveled to Moscow Oblast to take part in the defense preparations. The enemy was closing in on Moscow, and the Pedagogical Institute, together with other educational establishments and factories, was slated to be evacuated to Turkmenistan. However, Esfir and two of her friends, in a fit of youthful passion, decided to stay behind. Back before the war, during her studies at the Institute, Esfir had completed a nursing course, and this determined the nature of her military service. Esfir and her friends volunteered to work at a collecting hospital for evacuees, which was based in Moscow at the time.
A few days before the occupation of her hometown of Yartsevo by German troops, Esfir Gurevich was able to evacuate her partially paralyzed mother to Moscow. Her mother died a year later, but her death took place in the Soviet interior, where she was under medical supervision. All of Esfir's relatives who had stayed behind in Tatarsk were murdered in 1942, together with the rest of the town's Jews.
Esfir went on to serve until the end of the war. The evacuation hospital followed first the Western, and then the 3rd Belorussian Front. The medical personnel would retrieve the wounded after the end of combat. Esfir passed through a succession of towns and cities – Vyazma, Minsk, Vilnius, Kaunas, Bartenstein (present-day Bartoszyce in Poland), and others. She met V-E Day in Königsberg (present-day Kaliningrad, Russia).
From August 1944 on, Esfir kept a diary, in which she recorded both current events and her own thoughts, while also looking back on the past. Eventually (in 2011), she published a collection of memoirs about the war, which was based on that diary. She dedicated it to two of her friends, Natasha Bezukladnikova and Alexandra Mitrofanova, alongside whom she had served throughout the war.
In 1946, after her discharge from the army, Esya Gurevich joined her brother in Minsk. There, she became a postgraduate student at the Institute of Literature and the Arts (the present-day Yanka Kupala Literature Institute). 1948 saw the publication of her first work. In 1957, after completing her postgraduate studies, Esfir stayed on at the Institute, pursuing her scholarly work. In 1972, she defended her doctoral dissertation. Gurevich published numerous monographs on Belarusian literature, paying particular attention to children's books.
In 1995, the Gurevich family immigrated to the USA and settled in Cleveland, where Esfir spent the last 20 years of her life.
Esfir Gurevch died in 2015.
On antisemitism among the wounded Red Army soldiers
"Once, a wounded soldier was wheeled into my ward from the bandaging room. Next morning, he was supposed to undergo surgery because of gas gangrene. Being naturally distressed and worried about it, he shared his concerns with me as soon as they had laid him down. As was my wont in such cases, I began to calm him down with reasoned arguments: First, it was a question of life and death, and there was no choice; secondly, most surgical operations were performed by the department chief himself – a highly qualified specialist who had saved the lives of many wounded soldiers, all of whom have remained grateful to him. I could easily talk about the doctor, because I knew him personally, and not just from hearsay; I had seen the lengths he would go to during postoperative care, struggling to literally snatch the patient from the jaws of death. And then, the wounded soldier suddenly blurted out: "But he is a Jew! He has assigned me this surgery" (as though it were a human sacrifice ritual). My patient had apparently failed to notice the signs of Jewishness in my own face.
In those years – despite my telltale first name, last name, and patronymic – I had not yet experienced the pain and tensions of interethnic relations. For this reason, I took the outburst of the wounded soldier to be an accident, an atavistic expression of lingering age-old prejudices that had yet to be fully stamped out of the minds of the simple folk (rather like religious superstitions).
…The surgery turned out to be difficult. Dr. Leitzen, as was his custom during postoperative care, kept the patient under tight control: He would check in on him several times a day, not only during his regular rounds, and he closely monitored his condition. When that condition had finally improved, and the soldier was about to be evacuated to a hospital in the rear, I asked him, half-jokingly and half-seriously, what he could tell me about Dr. Leitzen in light of our earlier conversation. "I just blurted it out because I was afraid" – his answer has become etched in my memory, and it seems to me that he was mildly embarrassed and trying to justify himself. He may also have noticed my own "scary" Jewish features during his frequent interactions with me."
Esfir Gurevich, Field Post Office 43177, Minsk: Pravo i Ekonomika, 2011, pp. 91-92.
On everyday antisemitism on the front lines
"I wonder what my patient would have said had he known that the hospital administrator, the chief surgeon, and many department heads whom I knew – Anna Lazarevna Tsirlina, Leonid Tumenyuk, Iosif Zamchuk, Boris Zakharovich (I don't remember his last name), and others – had Jewish last names. He would probably have been frightened to death. I can also imagine how Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn would have reacted if he had seen the roster of the hospital. Doubtless, he would have remarked that the Jews, as always, have grabbed the "cushiest posts"! In reality, these were the hardest and most responsible wartime jobs, which required an immense expenditure of both physical and spiritual energy, enormous professional experience, outstanding organizational talents– and also bravery, fortitude, and all the other attributes of unostentatious heroism. These individuals were all talented professionals; thanks to them, the hospital functioned as a single, smooth organism."
Esfir Gurevich, Field Post Office 43177, Minsk: Pravo i Ekonomika, 2011, p. 92.