Grigorii Beer was born in 1918 in Odessa, as Hersh Beer. His father, Shimon, was a stevedore at the Odessa port. He attended synagogue, but was not religiously observant ( e.g., he ate non-kosher food). The family was Russian-speaking, Yiddish being heard only at big family celebrations and reunions. In 1926, Hersh entered a Ukrainian school. In 1933, after completing seven classes, he entered a vocational school; upon finishing it, he was employed as a metalworker at the city power station.
In 1938, Hersh (now Grigorii) Beer was drafted into the Red Army. He was sent to an intelligence school in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia), which he finished in 1939 with a specialization in radioprospecting. As a member of the 398th Separate Radio Battalion, Beer participated in the string of Soviet annexations in 1939-40: fighting in the Soviet-Finnish (Winter) war of 1939-40 and taking part in the preparations for the annexation of Bessarabia and the Baltic states in summer 1940. At the time of the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, some of the men of the 398th Radio Battalion, with Beer among them, were stationed in the former Finnish city of Viipuri, which was now the Soviet town of Vyborg. From there, his radio company was transferred to the area of Viazma, western Russia, and from there to the Red Army’s Briansk Front. There, in the fall of 1941, Beer was swept up in the retreat of the Red Army. He took part in the abortive defense of Orel and Dmitrovsk, narrowly avoiding capture by the Germans at one point. Beer recalls that only seven soldiers from his radio unit remained alive, and these survivors ran into German troops. "I knew what the Germans did to Jewish POWs," Beer recalls, "but I was the commander of a radio station, and I had a Nagant revolver in my right hand; should the Germans show up, I would shoot myself"1. Luckily, the advancing German army paid no mind to this tiny group of Soviet stragglers, and they managed to break out of the encirclement. After being reformed, Beer’s Separate Radio Company served at the HQ of the Briansk Front. As a member of this radio intelligence unit, Beer took part in the Kursk Salient operation in summer 1943. He proudly claims that they (and hence, the command of the Front) knew of every movement of every German army or division 2.
Remarkably, radioprospecting did not even require the ability to shoot. And yet, on numerous occasions the commanders of the various fronts and armies that employed the 398th Radio Battalion would order its members to secretly cross the front lines and penetrate 6-8 kilometers into the enemy rear, sending radio dispatches from there. Beer was lightly wounded on several occasions, once in the face.
After the end of the Kursk Salient operation, Beer’s unit was attached to the 2nd Baltic Front. As a result, he met V-E Day not in Germany, but at the liquidation of the so-called Courland Pocket in Latvia, where the German troops laid down their weapons only on May 9, 1945.
In the course of the war, Grigorii Beer was awarded the Order of the Red Star and a number of medals.
Beer was discharged from the Red Army in fall 1945, but shortly thereafter, as an experienced radio spy, he received an offer to work for the MGB/KGB. He went on to serve in that body for six years, from 1946 until 1952, when he was fired from his job at the peak of the Stalinist anti-Jewish campaign. Remarkably, he was not the only member of the family to suffer from Soviet antisemitism: His wife, an ethnic Ukrainian, was denounced as a “Jewish wife” at her workplace. After his dismissal from the KGB, Beer returned to the Odessa power station, where he had worked before the war. He resumed his earlier job as a metalworker, and later became a technician.