Izrail Gurevich was born in 1921 in Penza, the mid-Volga region, Russia. His grandfather was a former kantonist – i.e., a Jew who had served for 25 years in the Tsarist army, thereby gaining the right to live outside the Jewish Pale of settlement. Izrail's father, Isaak, was a street photographer. The family was poor. Izrail dreamed of becoming an actor, and in the mid-1930s he went to Moscow to study at a theater studio. After returning to Penza, he worked for a time at a local theater, acting as an extra on its stage. In February 1940, Izrail Gurevich was drafted into the Red Army. He served with an artillery regiment in Ukraine.
On June 22, 1941, when the Soviet-German War broke out, Gurevich was in Krzemieniec, in what was then Western Ukraine. His baptism by fire took place on June 25; his last battle was on June 30, after which only a quarter of his regiment's men remained alive and fit for service. As the remnants of the regiment retreated eastward, the men were surrounded by the Germans and taken prisoner. Fortunately, the Germans did not look for Jews among the Soviet POWs. Izrail Gurevich, who did not have a typically "Jewish" appearance, was able to pass himself off as an ethnic Russian from Moscow named Igor Gurov, and survived. In October 1941, he and other POWs were transferred to the Gross-Rosen camp in Silesia. The inmates suffered from starvation, and many of them died during the first months of captivity. Fortunately for Izrail, he spoke German, and came under the protection of a German kapo of his block, a convicted "asocial" named Hans – who, just like Izrail, was a failed actor. Hans began to provide Izrail-Igor with extra food, keeping him alive.
Izrail Gurevich would later recall an incident that might seem ridiculous, if not for its tragic ending. A new batch of Soviet POWs arrived in Gross-Rosen. The SS officer on duty asked the new arrivals which of them spoke German. A young POW answered: I do. The officer asked him what his nationality (ethnicity) was, and the POW replied "Jewish". "Naturally, - said the officer, - who else can speak German in Russia? Only the Jews." In an attempt to save the young man's life, Izrail-Igor asked the SS man: "And what about me? Do you think that I am Jewish, too?" The answer was: "Schweig, alte Sau [Silence, old sow]; It's we who have taught you German here." Naturally, the young POW was shot dead.
In February 1945, the able-bodied POWs from Gross-Rosen were transferred to a labor camp in the Sudetenland (in present-day Czechia). Here, on May 8, Izrail was liberated. After a brief screening, he was assigned to a reserve regiment, and resumed his interrupted service in the Red Army. However, in October that year Gurevich was arrested and put on trial. Accused of collaborating with the enemy while in captivity, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Gurevich was sent to the coal mines in Vorkuta, north of the Arctic Circle, and was released only in 1956, three years after Stalin's death.
After his release, Izrail Gurevich returned to Penza.