Simon Vapne was born in 1911 in Līvāni, in eastern Latvia. In the 1920s he moved to Riga, where he graduated from a gymnasium. In the 1930s he worked as a specialist at a textile factory and married. With the Soviet annexation of Latvia in June-August 1940, Vapne volunteered to join a unit of "the workers militia". His unit was later merged with the 9th Labor Battalion, which mainly fulfilled police functions in Riga.
With the beginning of the Soviet-German war on June 22, 1941, Vapne's labor battalion was assigned to organize the evacuation from Riga. Simon made plans to send his wife Basia (Batia), in the last stage of pregnancy, to his parents in Līvāni on June 26, believing that the Germans would never enter the town. Some days later he found that his wife was still at their home in Riga. She told him that Līvāni had been bombed, that the Red Army had fled, and that the town was controlled by antisemitic Aizsargi, members of the prewar Latvian pro-government, paramilitary organization Aizsargu organizācija, "Guards' Organization." A few days later, Basia gave birth to a girl. Her parents congratulated Simon, but, as he noted, he did not know whether to rejoice or to cry.
Some days later Vapne's battalion was evacuated to Valka, a town on the Latvian-Estonian border. Before he left, he organized the evacuation of his wife and their infant daughter. However, Basia did not arrive in Valka with the last evacuation vehicle. As Simon learned later, Basia's parents had prevented by force her getting on the bus. Basia, the baby girl, and Basia's parents and sisters all perished in the Riga ghetto.
In Valka, along with comrades from his battalion Vapne volunteered to join the Red Army's Latvian Regiment, which was being formed in the town. Simon noted that almost all of the volunteers for this regiment were Jewish. Many of them he knew well. A few of the volunteers were Communists, the majority were apolitical, and some were former members of Zionist organizations. The regiment's role was to fulfill police, rather than military, functions (among its duties was to exterminate "fascist" Latvian and Estonian units that were opposing the Red Army and to serve as "barrier troops," i.e. to prevent Red Army soldiers from deserting by shooting them in the back). Meanwhile, in July and August 1941, Vapne had his real baptism by fire: his regiment was engaged in fierce combat against German troops advancing toward Tallinn from the south. The Red Army attempt to defend the capital city of Estonia was disastrous: the majority of its soldiers, poorly trained young Jews, were killed. In the final battle, Simon was seriously shell shocked. Tallinn was abandoned by the Red Army and its wounded soldiers were to be evacuated by sea to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia). Ship No.522, with Vapne on it, was the last transport ship to depart from Tallinn to Leningrad. Just hours after its departure, the Germans entered the port of Tallinn.
Vapne spent a long time in military hospital. After his release, he was put into a barrack (on Volfova Street in Leningrad) for "unreliable" conscripts – Latvian and Estonian refugees, ethnic Germans from Russia, and others. Since the Soviets distrusted them and were afraid of giving them weapons, most of them were to be sent construct fortifications near Leningrad. One night Vapne overheard two ethnic Germans from Leningrad talking. One of them said: "Thank God, the steel birds of our Führer will soon put an end to the country where we are now. Liberation will come soon and we Germans will rule in Leningrad." Vapne was shocked when he heard the words of his enemies, of enemies who wanted to kill him personally and the whole of the Jewish people! The following day he reported them to the "special (i.e., security) department" of the regiment. The two soldiers were then arrested, court martialed, and shot before the eyes of their denouncer. Vapne was upset by his role in this episode. Nevertheless, some days later, when Vapne was asked to serve as a secret informer for the Soviet security organs, he agreed. Vapne was given documents identifying him as a Latvian and was assigned to one of the Latvian labor battalions working near Leningrad. His mission was to initiate conversations with Latvian and Russian soldiers and to report on their attitudes. Thus, Vapne's short career as a security agent began. Many soldiers around him harbored anti-Soviet sentiments. Many of them were openly antisemitic and sympathized with the Nazis, who, in their view, were motivated to invade the Soviet Union mainly to get even with the "Yids." Some of the objects of Vapne's 1942 denunciations were executed.
In the fall and winter of 1941-1942, Leningrad was besieged by the Germans and starvation prevailed in the city. The soldiers of his and other labor battalions were given weapons to fight the enemy. Somewhat later the Latvian Battalion was transferred to eastern Russia and attached to the 201st Latvian Division (later the 43rd Guards Latvian Division). In September 1942, after military training, this division was deployed in the area of Staraia Russa (south of Leningrad). In April 1943, while recovering from dystrophy in a military hospital, Vapne was assigned to SMERSH", the counter-intelligence department, whose purpose was to root out within the division spies and anti-Soviet agitators. In this capacity Vapne served in western Russia, Belorussia, and in Latvia. In January 1944, he was seriously wounded. His last place of service was Daugavpils, in eastern Latvia.
Soon after the capture of Līvāni by the Red Army in August 1944, Vapne arrived in his native town. There he learned that his father Yitzhak-Mendel, his mother Pia, his brothers Mordecai, Meir, and Leybe, and his sister Hana-Lea, along with the rest of the town's Jews, had been killed - mainly by their former Latvian neighbors. At that point, Vapne no longer felt any qualms about earlier acts as an agent of the Soviet security organs.
After the war, Simon Vapne settled in Riga. His wartime experience of antisemitism in the Red Army and of Stalin's postwar anti-Jewish campaigns, especially the Doctors' Plot affair, disillusioned him greatly with regard to the Soviet regime. In 1967, he emigrated from the USSR and moved to Israel.
Simon Vapne died in 2000.
Simon Vapne's experience of antisemitism in the Red Army
In April 1943 Simon Vapne was diagnosed as having suffering from dystrophy. This was after he had survived the starvation conditions of the siege of Leningrad and then those at the Gorokhovetskii training camp, where the food situation was not much better. Vapne was sent to a military hospital.
"I left [the hospital] on foot. During those days in April the sun was shining and the snow was melting, so walking to the town [Ostashkov] was difficult. […] When I arrived at the main road, I had a bit of luck: I succeeded in stopping a small but elegant car heading for Ostashkov. Two Russian officers were sitting in the car. While we were traveling together, one of them turned to me and said 'Hey, Yid, how did you end up on the frontlines? The Yids fled to distant Tashkent.' The other officer agreed and exclaimed 'Let's throw this Yid from the car, right here in the forest.'
I first thought that both of these officers might have been disguised Germans who had gotten rid of their uniforms and were engaged in espionage. I could not believe that Russian officers who had been brought up in the internationalist spirit were antisemitic and racist. We Jews were fighting together with them and with other peoples against a against a common enemy, weren't we? Where did this hatred for Jews come from?
At that very moment a German plane appeared and attacked our car. It descended and showered us with bullets. While it turned around for another attack, the driver stopped our car and all of us jumped out of the car and fell right into a roadside ditch full of melted snow. To our luck, neither the car nor we suffered any ill effects. When I was getting out of the ditch, I received a heavy kick from the boot of one of the officers and I fell down. The car rushed way while I remained on the main road in the midst of a dense forest. I continued walking and in the evening arrived at a village, where a [Soviet] military unit was stationed. From there I went to Ostashkov".
Some days after this, SMERSH, the Soviet army security organ, proposed that Vapne work for it and he agreed.
Vapne, Shim'on, Be-sherut ha-Zava ha-Adom: Zikhronot mi-Milhemet ha-Olam ha-Shniya (1941-1945), Tel-Aviv, 1991, p. 58-59.