Moisha Toporovsky was born in 1907, in a Jewish family living in Starokonstantinov (in present-day Khmelnytskyi Oblast, Ukraine). He was one of many children. His father Shiko managed a stone quarry, and later ran a shop selling stone for construction.
After completing his military service, Moisha (who would later change his first name to Mikhail, as part of the modernization of Soviet Jewry) settled in Odessa, where he was joined by his mother and two sisters. Other members of the family, who had remained in Khmelnytskyi Oblast, died in the Holodomor (the great Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933).
Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Mikhail Toporovsky was sent to the front. Initially, he took part in the defense of Odessa, where his sisters, his wife, and their children were at the time. When the Red Army was ordered to retreat, the city, with its large Jewish community, was left defenseless. Within days, Mikhail's relatives were able to evacuate into the Soviet interior, but one of his sisters, Polina, stayed in Odessa, and died in the Holocaust.
Mikhail Toporovsky served in the Red Army throughout the war, taking part in numerous battles. Whenever volunteers were needed to carry out various assignments, he would always step forward, deeming it his duty to refute the stereotype of the cowardly Jew.
Because of his high combat activity, Mikhail Toporovsky was listed as "missing in action" in some of his award documents. In all likelihood, this was due to an incident that took place in 1942, when Toporovsky volunteered to guard a bridge, to cover the retreat of his unit. His comrades believed him dead, but he had actually managed to escape. After hiding in the woods for a while, Mikhail joined another military unit. In 1943, he was wounded, but returned to frontline duty after recovering. He met V-E Day in Vienna.
When the war was over, Mikhail Toporovsky returned to Odessa. However, he lost his room shortly thereafter — while Toporovsky was bringing his family back from the Soviet rear, the room was taken over by strangers.
Mikhail then built a new apartment in the garage that had been assigned to his family, and they all lived there until the end of his days.
Mikhail Toporovsky died in Odessa in 1991.