Gershon Lak was born in 1925 in Riga. His parents were owners of a large women's clothing shop in the city. His mother, née Hannah Pen, was born in Vitebsk and was a relative of the renowned artist Yudel (Iurii) Pen. The father Tsalel, a fashion designer by profession, was born in Dünaburg (now Daugavpils), in southeastern Latvia. Although the family was more traditional than orthodox, Gershon had an Orthodox bar-mitzvah ceremony at the central synagogue of Riga.
Gershon's parents spoke Yiddish at home, but they wanted to give their son a good German education. The boy had a German governess Elsa (it was she who changed the form of his name from Gershon to Garri, or Garry) and, in 1933, he was accepted by a German-language school. In 1939 he completed his sixth year there and moved on to a Latvian-language gymnasium. Although German was his first language, he also spoke Latvian and Yiddish.
Between June and August 1940 Latvia was annexed to the Soviet Union, and on June 14, 1941, eight days before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Lak family was deported (in the last prewar and most massive, Soviet deportation of Latvians and Jews from the country). The Lak family was sent to Eastern Siberia. In December 1941, the father Tsalel was arrested and sent to the GULAG, where he died. The rest of the family was deported again, this time northward to the Soviet Arctic. Garri was assigned to dig a foundation pit with his bare hands in the Arctic permafrost. There he learned to speak Russian. Garri realized that he would perish if he were not drafted and sent to the front. His visits to the enlistment office were fruitless since he was rejected as a deportee, i.e. an "enemy element." Meanwhile, Garri succeeded in finding a job at a local power station, which saved his life.
In January 1944, a disabled man arrived at their settlement. He was a son of the family that had been deported from Riga together with the Laks and that lived in the same room as the Lak family. The son Ziame (Zalman), avoided deportation by a miracle. He had been drafted into the Red Army, and had lost a leg in battle. Garri told Ziame that he wanted to be drafted. Zalman came to his [Garri's] mother and said: "As long as he stays here, your son is alive. What will happen to him at war – nobody knows. War is terrible. Just look at me." The mother said that it was up to Garri to decide. So, on his crutches, Zalman accompanied Garri to the enlistment office and said to the commissar: "Why do you refuse to take this lad into the army? He is a Jew like me, and a deportee like my mother and sister. Our fathers are in camps, so – why not? He knows German and Latvian and is well educated. Doesn't the army need such people?" As a result, Garri was drafted and sent to a reconnaissance school. His mother and sister were permitted to move south and eventually, they settled in the Urals, where the climate was milder.
In the fall of 1944, Garri Lak arrived at the front, which at this time was in Poland. Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Meierson decided the fate of the newly arrived volunteer. Lak was assigned to the reconnaissance company of a regiment. Garri recollected that, at first, his reconnaissance company made fun. "Hey, you're Jewish, aren't you?" – "Yes, I am a Jew". – "Ha-ha-ha, so now we have a Jew in our reconnaissance [unit]". However, after the first German POW was interrogated by Lak, the derisive attitude of his "comrades" yielded to respect. Lak had one advantage: he had no trouble reading the Gothic script, in which many Nazi documents were written, and which other Soviet translators had difficulty deciphering.
In April 1945, Lak was wounded in Germany. Lieutenant Colonel Meierson, a Jew, insisted that Lak be released from military service. Garri rejoined his mother and sister.
The Lak family was released from exile only in 1948. After a short stay in Riga, where all of their belongings, including their apartment, were nationalized, Lak moved to (Soviet) Karelia and devoted himself to geology. He settled in Petrozavodsk (Petroskoi), the main city of Russian Karelia and, from the 1970s, was a renowned scientist in the field of geology.
Garri's mother Hannah and his sister Dora immigrated to Israel in 1955. In order to get permission to leave the Soviet Union, Hannah Lak wrote a letter to Khrushchev, in which, inter alia, she wrote, "I cannot stay in the country where the Russians killed my husband and the Germans killed my daughter" (Her daughter Tania from her first marriage and Tania's family were killed by the Nazis in 1941 in Rumbula, near Riga). Hannah died in 1968.
Garry Lak did not go to Israel with his mother and sister. Since his scientific activities had precedence for him, he remained in Russia and died in Petrozavodsk in 2013.
Garri Lak recalled as follows his encounter with Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Meierson.
"We [the last six graduates of the reconnaissance school in Omsk who had not yet been assigned] were standing near a covered truck. […] When I got into the truck, I saw a gray-headed colonel [Lak's mistake: Meierson was only a lieutenant colonel at this time] with an Order of the Red Banner on his chest […] There was a lamp, a camp bed with a blanket, a small stove, a desk, and two carpets. […] Probably, some [official] documents had accompanied me to this place. The colonel asked:
'Where are you from?'
'From Riga' [I replied]
'Where were you drafted?'
'In Krasnoiarsk [in Eastern Siberia]'.
'Are you a Latvian?
'No, a Jew'.
'Where you know Russian from?'
'I learned it recently.'
He stopped for a while [then continued]:
'And where is your German from?'
I said that I had finished six grades of a German school.
'Do you have Soviet citizenship?'
'So then, tell me, what color is the Soviet ID?'
I thought for a while. Of course, I had never had it, but it seemed to me that I had once seen as Soviet passport so I said:
'Good, so you can join our reconnaissance.'
The gray-haired colonel Meierson understood quite well who I was. Someone had saved him in 1937 [during the wave of purges of the Red Army]; that is probably why he, in turn, helped me until the end of the war."
Dmitrii Tsvibel, "Sud'by opalionnye voinoi", in: Korni, 25 (2005), p. 95)
Every Victory Day (May 9th), Lak said, he remembered his colonel with a grateful word – because he saved Garri's life more than once. "He had great authority in the army, and he insisted that I not be transferred anywhere away from him. He was well aware that if I were transferred to a higher-level unit, a [background] check would begin, and the truth about me would be revealed" - Lak said.
(from an interview given by Lak, see http://eajc.org/page279/news29198).