Yaakov Hefetz (Jakow Chefec) was born in 1921 in Daugavpils, southeastern Latvia, as the third of seven children. His father Pinhas was a tinsmith. The family observed Jewish traditions. Yaakov finished a Hebrew elementary school and continued to study at a Jewish vocational school, which he completed in 1938 as a carpenter. He was a member of the leftist Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair.
In August 1940, in the aftermath of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Latvia was annexed to the Soviet Union, and Yaakov Hefetz became a Soviet citizen overnight. His family was classified as "proletarian" – i.e., poor and working – by the new authorities. Therefore, they were not deported to the eastern regions of the USSR.
On June 22, 1941, the Soviet-German War broke out, and on June 27 the Hefetz family left Daugavpils on foot, hoping to cross the old border into Russia. En route, they had to endure German air raids and bombings; in the end, most of the family decided to return to Daugavpils, while Yaakov continued on his way. He managed to cross into Russia, and was evacuated to the Lower Volga region. He later moved to southern Kazakhstan, where he worked as a carpenter.
There, Yaakov heard rumors of a Polish division being formed in the Soviet interior to fight against the Germans. Since Yaakov's native city of Daugavpils was home to a sizeable Polish community, he tried to join this unit (the future 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division), but his application was rejected; the Red Army did not let him enlist, either, since he was a “westerner” – i.e., a native of the annexed territories. However, exactly at this time he learned that a Latvian division of the Red Army was under formation. Thus, Yaakov went to Tashkent, where there were Latvian representatives, and he was enlisted in the Latvian 201st Rifle Division.
In the Gorokhovetskii camps near Gorky (present-new Nizhnii Novgorod), where the new recruits of the 201st Division were being trained, Yaakov met quite a few of his old comrades from Daugavpils. Some of them had belonged to various Zionist movements in independent Latvia. Yaakov was deeply touched by the solidarity and mutual aid displayed by the Jewish soldiers in the training camp – e.g., the sharing of the food that some of them were able to procure (the official food ration in the camp was very meager).
Before Yaakov could actually begin his training at the Gorokhovetskii camps, he had to overcome a hurdle. Like his parents, he did not have a Latvian passport; rather, he lived with a so-called "Nansen passport". These documents were issued after World War I and the Russian Civil War to individuals who, in a world of changing state borders, could not define the country to which they belonged, and were therefore unable to obtain any citizenship. The Nansen passport was recognized by many states, but not by the Soviet Union. Yaakov Hefetz would later recall that the comrades with whom he was sent to the Gorokhovetskii camps explained to him that his Nansen passport was a “treyfe thing” in the eyes of the Soviets. "You will be never sent to frontline duty," they said, "only to a labor company." But Yaakov wished to be a frontline combatant.
However, for a period of three months, Yaakov Hefetz did indeed serve in a labor company. Afterward, the Soviets divided this company: the people deemed truly “treyfe” were sent to labor battalions operating further away from the front lines, while the rest, with Yaakov among them, were assigned to ordinary combat units, and underwent the requisite military training. Nevertheless, when his training was over, Hefetz, as a skilled carpenter, was left behind in the camp to build its “club” house.
Only on January 1, 1943 was Yaakov finally sent to the frontline. Having been trained as a sapper, he was attached to a sapper platoon of the 123rd Regiment. The regiment was deployed in Staraia Russa in northern Russia – a region that saw heavy fighting, with no decisive victory by either side. During the first days after the arrival of the new recruits, half of them were killed, as Yaakov would later recall. Here, his primary duty was building living dugouts (zemlianki) for the soldiers. Whenever such work was not needed, he would be sent out on scouting trips, after which he had to report on the character and conditions of the terrain in which the regiment was to operate.
After three months of frontline service, Yaakov was wounded by a shrapnel shell during one such raid. His comrades brought him back to the unit. Yaakov spent more than nine months convalescing, mostly at a Latvian hospital in Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow. There, Yaakov was struck by the pervasive antisemitism, which was condoned by the commanders and political officers.
After being discharged from hospital, Yaakov was recognized as unfit for service and discharged from the army. He went to Tashkent, where he found his sister Bella. In April 1945, he returned to Latvia and settled in Riga, where he worked as a teacher at a vocational school. In 1946, Yaakov managed to “convince” the Soviet authorities that he was a former Polish citizen, whereupon he was “repatriated” to Poland. In September 1947, Yaakov Hefetz was already in the Land of Israel, where another sister of his had been living since 1938. He settled in Holon and worked as a teacher of crafts in Bat Yam. He had a son and a daughter.