Rafail Milner was born in 1910 in the town of Monastyrishche, Ukraine into a poor Jewish family. At the age of 12 Rafail began to work and at the same time took evening courses in his mother-tongue Yiddish, to improve his education. After some time Milner left town for Tsaritsin/Stalingrad, where in the early 1930s he worked at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory. During this period he learned to read and write in Russian. In 1936 Rafail Milner was drafted into the Red Army and, on June 23, 1941, he graduated from the prestigious Lenin Political - Military Academy in Moscow.
After the outbreak of the war on June 22, 1941 Milner, who from 1932 was a member of the Communist Party, served for several months as a political commissar (politruk) on the Western Front and from December 1941 as a political commissar of the Regiment of the Infantry Division. He took part in the battle for Moscow (October 1941- January 1942) and in the Kaluga and Orel-Volkhov Soviet offensives. In March 1942 Milner was decorated with the Order of the Red Star. He distinguished himself during the Battle for Dnieper (August-December 1943). In September 1943 his regiment was the first to cross the Dnieper near the village of Lyubech, Chernigov District. Within several days it captured a bridgehead on the right bank of the river and repelled several German counter-attacks. On October 6, 1943, during fighting in the Gomel District of Belorussia, Milner replaced the wounded commander of the regiment and, during the following days, managed to expand the bridgehead that had been captured, thus enabling troops of the division to cross the Dnieper. For his role in planning, organizing, and participating in these operations, on January 15, 1944 Lieutenant-Colonel Milner, along with 12 other officers and soldiers of his regiment, was awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.
While he was fighting Rafail Milner saw the results of the murder by the Nazis of the entire Jewish communities in areas that he traversed and he was greatly influenced by this. Thus, in a letter to his wife on August 22, 1944 he wrote:
"…. Currently we are staying in this city. I want to introduce you to the life in [the city of] Grodno [Belorussia]. Many Jews were living here before the war, but now not a trace is left. Only the ghetto surrounded by barbed wire remains, [as well as] the terrible memories of the horrors suffered by the people who wore the yellow Stars of David on their chest and back…. I passed through southern and northern Belorussia, but in the area where [before the war] up to 50 percent of the Jews were living, now everywhere I found only the remains of the ghetto and ashes – [silent] monuments to the horrors of the 20th century.…" (GARF 8114-1-106, copy YVA JM/26117).
The issue of the Holocaust became even more personal for him as he learned that the family of his brother, Leva, who also served in the Red Army, was murdered by the Nazis. As a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Milner delivered a speech at the 3rd Anti-Fascist Meeting of Jewish Representatives held in Moscow on April 3, 1944. While referring to the prominent role of many Jewish soldiers and officers in the Red Army, Milner clearly stressed that the primary motive for the Jewish soldiers in fighting the Nazis was, and should be, to avenge the murder of Jews.
In the summer of 1944, Rafail Milner, by now commander of a regiment, participated in the liberation of Riga and Poland. During the Soviet Berlin Strategic Offensive (April 20 - May 2, 1945) Milner's soldiers destroyed the German defense line, crossed the Oder River north of Berlin, and captured a bridgehead on its left bank, holding it until other Soviet troops crossed the river. For this operation, in June 1945 Milner was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. During the course of the war Rafail Milner was also decorated with the Orders of Alexander Nevsky and the Great Patriotic War, 1st class.
After the war Rafail Milner remained with the Soviet troops in Germany. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, he commanded several units in the Kiev Military District. From 1953 to 1960 Milner headed military departments in various institutions of higher education. In 1960 he retired and worked as a senior lecturer at a Kharkov institute.
Rafail Milner died in 1979 in Kharkov, Ukraine.