Solomon Mandel was born in 1922 in the town of Slutsk, Belorussia. He completed eight grades of Yiddish school, followed by two years at a Russian school. In October 1940, immediately after the end of his school studies, he was drafted into the Red Army. He served in Moscow, in the recently formed 9th Motorcycle Regiment, which was modeled on similar German formations. He would assess the training he received in this regiment as inadequate for the future war against Germany. When the Soviet-German War broke out in June 1941, Solomon and his comrades were convinced that victory over the Germans would be swift. On the third day of the war, the 9th Motorcycle Regiment was sent to the frontline. “Our euphoria evaporated as soon as the train arrived in Vitebsk – Mandel would later recall, – in the immediate aftermath of a German air raid. All around us, we saw fires, crowds of refugees, the bodies of women and children, soldiers hectically running about, looters picking through shops…”.
The first days of combat were frustrating: The Wehrmacht was advancing, and the Red Army was in retreat. Here, at the frontline between Vitebsk and Smolensk, Mandel first saw the German propaganda leaflets, where the Nazis promised that they would not harm Red Army soldiers captured as POWs, except for the Jews and the “commissars”. Solomon's motorcycle broke down, and he, together with another soldier, had to walk eastward. Near Rudnia, western Russia, they were captured by the Germans. Mandel’s captivity lasted a day and a night – he managed to escape and reach the Red Army positions. Here, he had to prove that he was neither a German spy nor a defector.
Meanwhile, the disorderly retreat was going on. Only in October did Solomon Mandel begin to serve in an anti-aircraft unit as a floodlight operator. Solomon, who disliked serving in the rear, petitioned the command to dispatch him to the front lines. Only in May 1942 was he attached to the 95th Guards Rifle Regiment. At this stage, this regiment was engaged in trench warfare, and Solomon divided his time between machine gun and mortar duels, and trench digging. In October 1942, he was seriously wounded while doing the latter job, and was able to return to his regiment only in mid-winter – now serving as an anti-tank artilleryman.
In February 1943, the regimental staff recalled that Solomon Mandel was Jewish – and hence, ostensibly, a German speaker – and he was recruited as a “propagandist”, whose job was informing the German soldiers of the defeat of Paulus' 6th Army in Stalingrad and proposing that they surrender. Mandel tried to explain that his mother tongue was Yiddish, not German, but to no avail. Several times, he took up position, put his speaking trumpet to his lips, and said in his heavy Yiddish accent: “Achtung, Achtung, deutsche Soldaten, …, etc.” In late February, a Red Army offensive (the Zhizdra Operation, 300 kilometers southwest of Moscow) began, and Solomon returned to combat duty. In March 1943, Mandel was frostbitten, and, after an operation (his toes were amputated), he was dismissed from military service. For a long time afterward, he walked with a cane.
Mandel’s sole military decoration (Order of the Patriotic War, 1st class) was awarded to him only after the war.
In the postwar period, Solomon Mandel graduated from the Faculty of Geography of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) State University as an oceanographer. He defended a dissertation in geography and worked at the Leningrad Research Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic.