Isaak Klavanskii was born in 1907 in Riga, Latvia. His father Yosef was a watch repairer. As a young school student, Isaak worked night shifts as a baker at various bakeries in the city. Later, he finished a pastry school and worked at a pastry shop in Liepaja, western Latvia. In the early 1930s, Isaak served in the Latvian Army, and was trained as a machine gunner. Afterward, he and his father-in-law, Zakss, acquired a pastry shop in Liepaja, where he worked together with his wife. In 1940, Latvia was annexed to the Soviet Union, and the new authorities nationalized the pastry shop. Isaak continued to work there as an employee, and this saved the family from the Soviet deportations.
While Klavanskii had never liked the Soviet system, he was aware of the German policy vis-à-vis the Jews in occupied Poland, and realized what lay in store for the Jews of Latvia should Germany occupy the country. Therefore, after sending his wife and two sons into the Soviet interior, he tried to remind the Soviet military authorities that he was a machine gunner. He was told that his job as a baker supplying the Red Army with bread was more important, and so he stayed in Liepaja. A week later, the city was occupied by the Germans.
From July 1941 until November 1944, Klavanskii managed to survive under German occupation – first by being hidden by friendly Latvians, and later by passing himself off as either an ethnic Russian from southeastern Latvia or as a Latvian from the same area (he was fluent in both languages). In January 1944, Isaak was arrested. The interrogators believed his story, and Isaak Klavanskii was sent to a labor camp for Russians. Paradoxically, during his stay in this camp, recruiters from the Vlasov Army came there and tried to convince him, along with the other Russian inmates, to join those collaborationist Russian units that fought on the Nazi side. In November 1944, the Germans deported a group of Russian POWs, with Klavanskii among them, to a labor camp in East Prussia, where they were required to build fortifications. In April 1945, Klavanskii managed to escape to the Soviet side. After undergoing a screening (SMERSH, the Red Army counterintelligence agency, was naturally interested to learn how he, a Jew, had managed to survive for almost four years under German occupation), Isaak Klavanskii was recruited into the 186th Reserve Rifle Regiment of the 43rd Army as a private. Thanks to his command of German, he was assigned as a translator to the HQ of the 3rd Belorussian Front, where he took part in the interrogation of the commanders of the surrendered German garrison that had defended Königsberg.
Klavanskii’s active service in the Red Army was brief. On May 1, 1945, in anticipation of the surrender of Berlin to the Soviets, Marshall Vasilevskii, the commander of the Front, ordered the confectioner Klavanskii to bake a “deluxe cake” for 50 to 80 people – the generals of the Soviet and the Western Allied armies. Only afterward did Vasilevskii grant Klavanskii’s request and attach him to his regiment as a machine gunner. Because of the capitulation of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945, Klavanskii failed to take part in combat. His only military award was the medal “For Battle Merit”.
After the war, Isaak Klavanskii was reunited with his family, and worked as a confectioner in Liepaja. He died in 1975.