Iakov Sarid was born as Iakov Krutogolov in 1920 in the town of Kozin, Volhynia, 50 kilometers east of Lwow (now Kozyn, Ukraine). His father Mordecai was a carpenter who worked together with Ukrainian carpenters. In one of their cooperative jobs, they renovated the manor of the local Polish estate owner. Iakov studied in a heder, a Jewish primary religious school, then in the Polish school that was opened in the town, as well with a private melamed, a teacher of religion. This melamed subscribed to a Zionist newspaper that was published in Warsaw and taught his pupils modern Hebrew.
In the 1930s Iakov joined the leftist Zionist youth movement Hehalutz Hatzair and cut off his sidelocks – in a word, he became more secular. Rumors circulated that he was a Communist (after all, it was de rigeur for the members of Hehalutz Hatzair to read Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky). Such rumors helped him since, when the Soviets occupied Volhynia in September 1939, Iakov was given work with the new Soviet authorities of the village.
In April 1941, about two months before the German attack on the Soviet Union, Iakov Krutogolov was drafted into the Red Army. His training was at a base in Opochka, northwestern Russia. On June 22, when their training was not yet finished, all the recruits at Opochka were sent to the front in Belorussia. During the summer months of 1941, Iakov experienced the humiliating retreat of the Red Army, when the Soviets were basically helpless in the face of the Wehrmacht onslaught. Iakov recalled that one day his unit was encircled by the Germans. It was night, and they [the Red Army men] were sleeping. Suddenly a Ukrainian from his native village, who had also been drafted, crawled up to him and whispered:
"'Get out from here as quickly as possible, before morning the Germans will be here, and you will be killed first, because you are a Communist and a Jew …; come to another [more secure Red Army] unit with me and don't tell anybody you are Jewish.' I listened and did as he told me. Together we found another [Soviet] unit and joined it. I then tore up and buried in the ground all my papers that indicated I was Jewish." 1
Krutogolov, who had encountered Ukrainian nationalists both before and during the war, concluded that there were also different Ukrainians. "This fellow-townsman of mine risked his life to rescue me; if anyone in our unit found out what he had whispered to me, and that he had advised me to get away, he would have been shot first, and then – me." 2
In August 1941, Iakov was wounded and sent to hospital. From there, in the fall of 1941, he was assigned to the defense of Moscow (the Kalinin Front). In October, he was wounded again, lightly. Meanwhile, an order was issued to dismiss all the "westerners" (people from the western territories that were annexed to the Soviet Union in 1939-1940) from active service in the Red Army. Consequently, Iakov was released from the army and sent as a worker to a military plant in Western Siberia. He recalled that at that stage he was quite happy about this.
It was in Western Siberia that Iakov became acquainted with Zoia, a Russian girl from a Kuban Cossack background. Iakov felt that this was the greatest love of his life. In the fall of 1943, Iakov heard the rumor that his native town of Kozin had been recaptured by Soviet troops (the rumor was wrong) and he was eager to visit the village to learn what had happened to his family. Zoia and Iakov decided that they would first visit her village in the North Caucasus, then they would go to Kozin. They came to Zoia's home as a couple. Her parents arranged a feast to celebrate their daughter's being alive and in a good health. During the celebration Zoia's father, who was quite drunk, asked Iakov: "Are you a Yid?" Iakov recalled the following: "I was also drunk at the time and I said 'Yes, I am a Yid'.'' 3 But he left the place immediately. On horseback, Zoia caught up with him in the steppe and said that she would go wherever Iakov went. For this devotion, Iakov compared Zoia to the biblical Ruth the Moabite. They failed to reach Kozin. When they approached the Dnieper River, Iakov was immediately drafted into the Red Army. Zoia volunteered and joined the same regiment. Several days later she was killed by an enemy sniper.
As a private, Iakov Krutogolov served as a sapper with the 1010th Rifle Regiment. He took part in the liberation of western Ukraine from the Germans. The towns that he entered as a soldier had historical and literary associations for him; for example, he remembered that Nemirov was the setting of I. L. Peretz's short story "If Not Higher." Krutogolov fought in Poland. In February 1945, near Poznań, under enemy fire he succeeded in destroying nine German anti-tank obstacles, and thus facilitated the Soviet tank attack on the city. For this deed, Iakov was awarded the Order of the Red Star. During the forcing of the Oder River, also under German fire, he constructed temporary bridges for the Red Army's military equipment. Besides being a sapper, he served with tank-drop units, one of the most dangerous types of military service during the war. Near Frankfurt-an-der-Oder he was wounded by shell fragments, but that did not prevent him from participating in the battle for Berlin.
In Germany Krutogolov met a fellow-townsman, a Ukrainian, who told him that his family had been killed by the Nazis.
In the summer of 1945, Iakov Krutogolov was released from the Red Army. His visit to Volhynia was short: there he decided that he wanted to live in the Land of Israel. In December 1945 he crossed the border to Poland, where he married Esther, a Holocaust survivor. Together they crossed another border, this time to Germany. In 1947, in a DP camp, Esther gave birth to a boy, who was called Moti, but the mother died a few days after the birth.
In 1948 Iakov and little Moti arrived in Israel, where the father changed his last name to Sarid (Hebrew for "remnant" or "survivor").