Yerahmiel-Zeev (Vladimir) Ioffe was born in 1898 in the town of Mglin (in present-day Bryansk Oblast). His father, Hillel Meyer, was an accountant who had also mastered the crafts of bookbinding and pottery, and was recognized as a craftsman in the town of Mglin. Shortly after the birth of Vladimir, the Ioffe family was able to relocate to Perm. Although the local Jewish community was small, Vladimir's father, Hillel (who had changed his first name to "Ilya" by that point), insisted on setting up a Jewish elementary school in the city, and a small-town Jewish teacher was hired to teach there. At home, the children (Vladimir had two brothers) studied Hebrew and Yiddish. Despite the strained financial circumstances of the family, they were willing to spend money on books. Vladimir Ioffe successfully completed his studies at a gymnasium. His character and attitudes may have been influenced by Hermann Henckel, a prominent Semitist and Orientalist. In addition to serving as the principal of the gymnasium at which the Ioffe brothers were educated, Henckel also edited the Jewish Encyclopedia and was an official at the Ministry of Education.
In 1915, Vladimir Ioffe enrolled in the Imperial Kazan University. He studied at the Faculty of Medicine, despite his obvious aptitude for the humanities. Like his older brothers, he was admitted without having to pass the entrance examinations. In 1921, after graduating from the University, Vladimir Ioffe returned from Kazan to Perm, where he worked as a physician at a provincial hospital. It was at that time that he became interested in research in the field of bacteriology. At the same time, he did not neglect his artistic side, organizing a drama circle that staged plays in Yiddish, and a circle for the study of the Hebrew language and Jewish literature.
In 1923, Vladimir Ioffe moved to Petrograd (from 1924 on – Leningrad, now St. Petersburg) and began to work at the State Institute of Experimental Medicine (the Pasteur Institute). By the late 1930s, he had become director of the Institute, heading the bacteriological laboratories of Leningrad hospitals and the Department of Microbiology of the Stomatology Institute.This scientific career did not prevent him from observing religious norms to the best of his ability: His father-in-law, David-Tevel Katzenelenbogen, served as the Rabbi of St. Petersburg, and later of Leningrad. In the city, he developed a close friendship with his teacher of microbiology, the prominent scientist Prof. Oscar Hartoch, the former head of the Institute (being an ethnic German, he was repeatedly arrested by the Soviet authorities, and finally shot in 1942). In 1938, at a gathering where everyone condemned the arrested Hartoch, Ioffe dared to speak out in his defense. He came home from the gathering pale and agitated, and began to run around his room in a semi-delirious state: "What have I done, what have I done?! They are going to arrest me now. How could I forget about my children?" The family had already resigned itself to the idea of arrest, and now they quickly began to prepare dry bread, packed a bar of soap and a cup, and sat down to wait. Everything turned out okay.1
Decisions about the arrest of such high-ranking medical professionals seem to have been taken in the upper echelons of the Soviet security apparatus.
Following the outbreak of the Soviet-German War in late June 1941, Vladimir Ioffe was able to send his family into the interior of the country, but he himself stayed behind in Leningrad. In October 1941, Ioffe was called up to serve in the Navy, first as a consulting epidemiologist, and later as the flagship epidemiologist of the Medical Sanitary Department of the Baltic Fleet. During Vladimir Ioffe's tenure at this post, there were no serious outbreaks of infectious diseases in the Navy, and the few outbreaks that did occur were nipped in the bud. The Soviet high command appreciated Ioffe's service, and he was nominated for the Order of Lenin in 1942, but the honor was downgraded to the Order of the Red Star. Vladimir Ioffe was also awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st and 2nd class, as well as medals. He ended the war as a Colonel of the Medical Service.
Curiously, Vladimir wrote to his wife Bertha, who had been evacuated into the Soviet interior, in Russian; however, when he was able to give her the letters in person, they would invariably be written in Hebrew. He once wrote to her: "Our salvation and the future of our people are in the hands of your brother."2 Bertha's brother was living in Palestine at the time.
In 1946, Vladimir Ioffe was appointed a toxicologist, and became a senior fellow at the Research Institute of Naval Medicine. He was also elected corresponding member of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR.
After retiring in 1948, Vladimir Ioffe returned to the Institute of Experimental Medicine, where he headed the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
In the early 1950s, during the notorious "Doctors' Plot", this department was slated for closure, but those plans were scrapped following Stalin's death. In 1969, Ioffe became an academician.
Vladimir Ioffe died in 1979 in Leningrad.
10 years after Ioffe's death, his family moved to Israel.
In 2016, Vladimir Ioffe's remains were brought to Israel and reburied in the grave of his wife, who had moved to Israel in 1989.
Recollections of Vladimir Ioffe
From the tale of the Orientalist Gita Gluskina, daughter of Mendel Gluskin, the Rabbi of Leningrad
"After my father's death (Gluskin served as the rabbi of Leningrad after Katzenelenbogen's death), I did not attend a proper Passover Seder for about 10 years. In 1946 or 1947, when we lived in a tiny room on the fifth floor, sharing an apartment with ten other families, a boy came and told us that his mother was inviting us to attend a Seder. This boy was David (or Tevik, as she calls him to this day), the son of the Ioffe family… For over 30 years, the Gluskin sisters, Gita and Lia (first alone, and later with their husbands, the academic Orientalists Lev-Aryeh Vilsker and Iosif Amusin), invariably attended the Passover Seder at the hospitable table of the Ioffes." The head of the family, Vladimir Ilyich Ioffe, would read, chant, and comment on the Passover Haggadah. On the eve of Passover in 1979, when everyone had already been invited, they received a sudden phone call: Vladimir Ilyich had passed away."
Translated from Russian