Semion Grutman was born in 1914 in Odessa and lived there for about 25 years. A year after the USSR annexed western Poland in September 1939, he was sent to work in Kowel, where he became director of studies in a Yiddish school. His mother and the mother of his wife were living there too.
In the first days after the war began between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 Grutman was drafted into the Red Army. His mother and mother-in-law remained in Kowel, which was occupied by German troops on June 28, and they were killed along with the rest of the Jews in Kowel, apparently either on June 2 or August 19, 1942.
Grutman became a military translator. In the summer of 1944, during the rapid advance of Soviet troops in Belorussia during Operation Bagration, he worked for the NKVD unit attached to the 28th Army, processing German prisoners of war. His responsibilities included registering the prisoners and sending them to POW camps. This assignment was carried out in coordination with intelligence units of the armed forces and SMERSH (army counter-intelligence), which were charged with discovering the active Nazis among the prisoners. At the same time these Soviets were seeking potential collaborators to engage in anti-Nazi propaganda among Wehrmacht troops at the front.
In September 1944 Grutman had the opportunity to visit Kowel, which had been liberated on July 6 of that year. By that time he already knew that his mother and mother-in-law had been murdered with the other Jews there. However, he wanted to learn about the last period in their lives. In Kowel in a destroyed synagogue, where the walls were covered with farewells remarks written in pencil in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish, by Jews incarcerated there by the Nazis. There were 95 such inscriptions in the Kowel synagogue but none of them were written by Grutman's mother. The synagogue was used to hold those Jews whom the Germans had succeeded in capturing after their second mass murder, on August 19. Therefore, his mother apparently was either killed earlier of did not write words of farewell on the synagogue walls.
Grutman expressed his feelings about visiting the city where members of his family and friends had been murdered in his article "Take Revenge," written on December 2, 1942 and sent to Ilya Ehrenburg, the popular war journalist, in the hope that it would be published. He was spurred to write the article by the publication on October 15, 1944 in the main army newspaper Krasnaia zvezda (Red Star) of a letter from the Englishwoman Lady Gibb, in which she asked Ehrenburg to leave justice to God and not call on Soviet soldiers to take revenge. The newspaper accompanied Gibb's letter with the response of Ehrenburg, in which he stressed the atrocities committed by the Nazis on Soviet territory. The two texts evoked a strong reaction from many Soviet citizens who were outraged by Lady Gibb's ideas. Grutman was one of those thus angered. He was not a professional writer and his text resembles a personal letter with some attempts to generalize rather than an article intended for publication. However, his letter reflected the experience of that other soldiers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, rarely expressed in writing.
One of Grutman's main themes was his guilt that he had not been able to save his dear ones. He formulated as follows his feelings, which had been especially exacerbated by his visit to the synagogue and his reading of the last words of the condemned:
"My heart began pounding, and it ached. I had seen a lot of sadness, had been through the whole of the Great Patriotic War from day one, had seen the grief and suffering of evacuated [sic] people, stretching their hands out to us, pleading with us not to go, not to leave them, when we were forced to retreat. I had seen many towns and villages burned down by the Germans. I remained firm, I knew that we would be back, that we would drive out the Germans and pay them back for everything and for everyone. But now I could no longer contain myself. Perhaps my mother's last pleas were here? I began to read the inscriptions carefully. I was hurrying because I could feel my legs giving way, while tears were choking me and getting in the way of my reading. I had been strong for three and half years of war, then I burst into tears. Somehow, the walls made me feel ashamed, as though they were saying or thinking about me: 'You went away and left us. You did not take us with you. You knew that this would happen to us and you left us all alone.'" (Joshua Rubenstein and Ilya Altman eds., The Unknown Black Book, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2008, pp. 155-156).
On the basis of his article Semion Grutman appears to have been a completely Soviet person, one who was influenced by Soviet propaganda. Yet that in no way interfered with the expression of his Jewish identity. The question of the guilt of the living before those who were killed, like questions relating to collaboration of the local population with the Nazis, which he did mention in his article, did not follow the official Soviet propaganda line. For this reason his article could not be published.
In the spring of 1945, during the fighting for Berlin, while still serving with the 28th Army, Semion Grutman was listening in on German radio communications, as a result of which he succeeded in determining the location of German headquarters. His overhearing of enemy communications made it possible to coordinate the activity of Soviet troops more effectively.
During the course of the war Senior Sergeant Grutman was twice awarded the Combat Merit Medal (on September 1, 1944 and on May 24, 1945, after the victory over Nazi Germany).