Ruven Evilevich was born in 1921 in Samara, Russia, to the family of a Jewish hat maker. Samara is located in the Lower Volga region, in southern Russia and was far from the former Pale of Jewish Settlement and from traditional Jewish centers. Ruven's religious father Iakov tried to give his son elements of a Jewish traditional education but, according to his own admission, the son had no interest to this field of knowledge. "… I could not agree with everything my father said. Maybe Palestine was the Jews' land in antiquity, but for me, our house's courtyard was quite enough" – he wrote in his memoirs. (Ruven Evilevich, Ia ne damsia tebe, Drakon!", Ierusalim, 1995, p. 154.) Ruven grew up without knowing the Jewish tradition or even the Jewish everyday language – Yiddish.
In 1941 Evilevich graduated from a school for military engineers in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). On the first day of the war, June 22, 1941 he was sent to the front in Ukraine as the commander of a platoon of field engineers. He experienced the bitterness of retreat in 1941, when the Red Army left district after district to the Germans who were advancing eastward.
In his memoirs, entitled I Will Not Surrender to You, Dragon! (which Evilevich published in 1995 while living in Israel), he recalled an interesting episode from this period.
In September 1941, while serving in the area of Kremenchug, central Ukraine, Evilevich was sent to a military warehouse to get some explosives. Near the warehouse, he encountered a beautiful Jewish girl named Judith from a nearby shtetl, who was desperately trying to evacuate her large family eastward. The staff of the warehouse agreed to lend her a truck only in return for "her body." Indignant, Evilevich decided to help her. He proposed to take her and her family to a railway station in his military truck and a place for her family in an east bound train. The story had a happy ending – Judith's family was taken on by an unscheduled medical train. After that, Ruvim and she lost touch with one another. However, while sitting in the back of the truck in their way to the station, Evilevich and Judith spoke about the meaning of being a Jew, including whether being a Jew contradicted the principles of Soviet internationalism. Evilevich later remarked that this encounter had made him, a Jew who did not know a word of Yiddish and had rejected a traditional education, to think about his Jewish identity for the first time.
Evilevich's military career was short. On December 1, 1941, while he was with his regiment in the area of Belgorod (southern Russia), he was struck by a German hand grenade and lost both his eyesight and his hearing. Evilevich regained consciousness in a Saratov military hospital – everything was completely dark and silent. His hearing partly returned to him during his stay in the hospital, and subsequent surgical operations restored six percent of the sight in one of his eyes.
Nevertheless, Evilevich did not fall into the abyss of despair. He returned to his native Samara and, despite all contrary advice, he entered the local pedagogical institute. After graduation, Evilevich worked in the city's "Palace of Pioneers" – a major children's club, where he headed the group of Red Scouts (an officially sponsored mass children's movement to recover the memory of war heroes whose deeds had remained in obscurity). As the leader of the local Red Scouts and when he spoke in schools and children clubs, in books and articles he published, Evilevich, on principle included heroes of the Jewish origin. Because of this, he sometimes had conflicts with the Soviet ideological authorities in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, in the early 1960s, his scouts found and put in order the grave of Solomon Diamant, a valiant Jewish partisan who was born in Samara and was killed in 1943 while fighting in Ukraine. At the same time, they revived the story of his life. In 1971 Evilevich published a book on the work of his scouts. While living in the Soviet Union, he published seven books, including an autobiographic novel The Sunrise.
In 1981 Evilevich became totally blind. His hearing deteriorated further. Nevertheless, he continued to write and publish books. A journalist, who wrote about him, compared Evilevich to Helen Keller.
In 1990 Evilevich emigrated from the Soviet Union and to Israel. He lives in Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem. In Israel, he wrote and published seven books, the same number as in the USSR.
An exerpt from Evilevich's book of memoirs
The following is an excerpt from Evilevich's memoir about his meaningful encounter (discussed in the main entry) with a Jewish girl named Judith in 1941 in Ukraine.
"… – What's your name?
– Difa? I have never heard such a name.
– My full name is Iudif [Judith]
She, in turn, asked:
– And what's your name?
– Rudolf, – I said and quickly added:
– But in all my documents, I am Ruvim.
– Ruvim! – the girl exclaimed. – So, you are a Jew too, aren't you?
She perked up noticeably.
While traveling together the twenty kilometers (12.5 miles) by military truck to a railway station, Evilevich tried to embrace Iudif's shoulder; she pushed him away, and an awkward situation ensued:
"– Why are you silent, Ruvim? – Her voice took on an apologetic tone. – Do you mind if I refer to you this way?
She sighed and said a few words in Yiddish. Now it was I who felt uncomfortable.
– You know, Judith, I don't understand a word in Yiddish.
– You don't understand! – She was sincerely surprised. – In that case, what kind of a Jew are you?
– A Jew according to my ID papers, – I tried to turn this into a joke but I felt myself blushing.
For the first time in my life, I was truly ashamed of not knowing the language of my own father and mother, my grandparents and great-grandparents.
My confusion was not lost on the girl, and she hurried to my rescue.
– However, – she said – you are not the only young Jew from Russia who does not know his language.... Here, in our Ukraine the situation is quite different.
I grabbed the lifeline that the girl had thrown me.
– In Zhitomir, to which I was assigned after military engineering school, I immediately noticed – I added: – to be honest, I was struck, to see that in the streets, not only adults but also even children were talking loudly to each other in Yiddish, and not a single passerby paid any attention to that. In our Volga region, Jewish families rarely speak Yiddish even at home, and if they do so, it is only the parents and grandparents. If they do so in the street – you can be sure that some passerby will turn around and even make some remark. The same was true in Leningrad.
– It is very sad, Ruvim, that it is only our names that testify on our nationality, - my interlocutor said.
– And the "item 5" in the ID too, – I said with a grin on my face. – But it is our opinion that the process of the assimilation for the Jews is, so to say, on the agenda; at least in the cities of Russia. …
Once more. She asked a question that probably occupied her very much:
– Are there many mixed marriages in your area?
– Not yet, they are few, but most probably their number would grow with each generation. – And then I added:
– For us, it is part of the notion "internationalism".
My companion said, carefully and seriously:
– Neither we, Jews of Ukraine are alien to internationalism, but we stand for the situation when Jews, as every other national minority, would lose neither their language nor their originality, nor their best traditions. Is there anything reprehensible in that?"
From: Ruven Evilevich, Ia ne damsia tebe, Drakon!" [I Will Not Surrender to You, the Dragon!], Ierusalim, 1995, – Evilevich's memoirs. Pp. 26-27: