Iakov Shepetinskii was born in 1920 in Slonim, a town that in 1921, following the Polish-Soviet war, was ceded to Poland (it is now in Belarus). In September 1939, the area was conquered by the Red Army and annexed to the Soviet Union; it was incorporated into the Belorussian SSR (Soviet Republic) as "West Belorussia". When the German army invaded the Soviet Union, Iakov was working in Bialystok. He quickly returned to Slonim, to his family, but it was too late for them to flee. On June 24 the Germans entered Slonim and within a short time Shepetinskii's family was imprisoned in the ghetto there.
In November 1941, the Germans shot to death 8,000 Jews in Slonim on one day. Shepetinskii was one of the only 10 survivors. He fell into the common grave, but managed to run away after nightfall.
In June 1942, during another German murder operation, Iakov, his parents, three of his brothers (including five-year old Uri), and his sister escaped from the ghetto to a nearby forest. Three Shepetinskii siblings joined the Soviet Shchors partisan unit headed by Pavel Proniagin. They joined the Proniagin's 51st company, which consisted of Jews. Iakov's parents and two younger brothers became part of the family camp. Iakov took part in many anti-Nazi operations, while his sister Raia served as a nurse. The rest of his family perished: his brother Herzl – in combat, his parents and his younger brothers – in the family camp.
In July 1944, the vicinity where was Shepetinskii fighting was liberated by the Red Army. Shepetinskii took part in the parade of the partisans in Pinsk, and then was immediately drafted into the Red Army, in which he became a soldier of the 61st Army on the 1st Belorussian Front. During his military training in West Belorussia he learned of the death of his parents and siblings in the partisan family camp. When he visited Slonim, he found that this Jewish shtetl did not exist any more – neither its houses nor its people.
In September 1944, his 61st Army was transferred to Latvia. Shepetinskii took part in the capture of Riga, and then he was transferred to Poland. He fought in northern Poland, and then in Germany, in May 1945, he was wounded and ended the war in a hospital near Berlin. In his postwar memoirs, Shepetinskii wrote:
"I am meeting May 9 – Victory Day – in a hospital. Everyone is having fun, triumphing, hugging, kissing. [For them] the war is over. Home to their family, to their loved ones, but I am lying with my face in my pillow. I am crying. I have no home, no family, no relatives, no friends. I am alone.
Amidst this general triumph of joy, well-deserved happiness, and hope, you feel broken, suddenly realizing the depth of the tragedy, both your own personal one and that of the whole Jewish people."
After the war, Shepetinskii remained in Berlin as a military translator. He was reunited with his sister Raia. He also met some of his former partisan comrades, who suggested that he desert from the Red Army and to move with them to Palestine, but he refused. However, in his capacity as translator, he had a number of opportunities to cross the new German-Polish border at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. Almost every time he returned, he gave rides in his truck to Jewish survivors who were eager to leave Poland to reach either the Land of Israel or North America.
In April 1946, Iakov was arrested by the counter-espionage organs of the Red Army and charged with spying for the British intelligence service. Two comrades, both Jewish were arrested with him on the same charge. Shepetinskii was urged to cooperate with the investigators, but after his decisive refusal, he was court martialed. He was sentenced to ten years in the GULAG and sent to serve his term in the Soviet sub-Arctic.
Shepetinskii was released in 1954. In 1966, he left the USSR for Israel. In 1969, he was called upon to travel to Hamburg to identify the former Gebietskommissar of Slonim Gerhard Erren.
 Iakov Shepetinskii, Prigovor, Tel-Aviv, 2002, p. 85