Yefim (Vilen) Davidovich was born in Minsk in 1924, and he spent his childhood in the district of Komarovka, which was home to a large number of Jews. As he would later remark, it occurred to him that Sholem Aleichem must have had this district in mind when creating his fictional shtetl of Kasrilevka.
Yefim’s father, Aaron, was a coachman (like his own father before him) and a military veteran. In 1913-1923, he served in the Russian army (and later in the Red Army), taking part in both World War I and the Russian Civil War. While fighting for the Tsar, he was awarded the Cross of Saint George (the highest possible decoration for a Jew) and promoted to the rank of lance corporal. Toward the end of the Civil War, he was severely wounded in the leg, and came back home on crutches. To support his family, Aaron worked days as a porter, hauling heavy loads, and nights as a watchman at a state-run printing house. Yefim’s mother, Sheina-Basia, was illiterate, yet she took good care of the family, and was passionate about giving her children the best education possible. As Davidovich would recall, their home language was Yiddish, and they were all referred to by their Jewish names: He was Fayve, and his brothers were Moshe-Khaim, Avrom-Itche, and Leizer. Although there were Yiddish schools in Minsk, the parents chose to send the children to a Belorussian school that was very close to their home. Yefim was an excellent student and a voracious reader.
After completing the 8th grade, Yefim dropped out of school and entered the Polytechnic College, wishing to acquire a profession and help his parents. He was seventeen in June 1941, when the Soviet-German War broke out. Ten days before the German invasion, he and the other students of his high-school class were sent on maneuvers to a small town in the area of Brest (Brześć nad Bugiem), a formerly Polish city which had been annexed by the USSR in 1939, and which now lay on the border with the German occupation zone in Poland. They were still there when the war erupted. Together with the one other Jew in the group, Davidovich decided to get back to Minsk. That decision saved his life, as the town in which they were staying was occupied in the first six hours of the war. They were unable to reach Minsk, and, after many weeks of wandering through Soviet territory, he and a group of other Jews from Minsk arrived in Syzran (a city near Samara on the Volga River). Yefim would never again see his parents and three brothers, all of whom perished in Minsk, along with most of the rest of his extended family. It was in Syzran that he first experienced the hostility of the native Russians toward Jews, yet it was there that he learned the meaning of Jewish solidarity, as well. In 1942, Davidovich was drafted into the Red Army, and shortly thereafter he was sent to an officer training school in Kuybyshev. At the time, all the officer courses were very rigorous and greatly accelerated. Nine months later, in May 1943, Davidovich received the rank of junior lieutenant, and was sent to the front lines as the commander of a rifle platoon in a division that was fighting in the Kursk Salient area. He would later recall:
“I remember the first attack I led, issuing orders in strict accordance with the 1942 Battle Code of the infantry, and having them obeyed with absolute precision — I might have been back at officers’ school, executing a field maneuver. I felt no fear and was perfectly sure I would not be killed — a certainty which remained with me throughout the war”.
Efim Davidovich, "The Making of a Dissident," Commentary, 62:6 (1976).
Davidovich was wounded a total of five times in the course of the war. He received his first battle wound in August 1943, and was treated at a field hospital that was low on medicine. He underwent leg surgery without anesthesia. When the operation was over, the surgeon told the nurses:
“Look, such a young fellow, and he did not moan even once — he was able to overcome the pain. And that Jew over there, who looks like such a healthy young man, never stopped yelling and screaming, even though his wound was minor.”
At this hospital, Davidovich met a nurse named Maria, who would become his wife after the war.
In the following years, he saw action in Ukraine, Poland, Germany – and, finally, on the very last day of the war, in Czechoslovakia, where he took part in the Prague offensive. Davidovich met V-E Day as a 21-year-old captain in the Red Army. He had been awarded two Orders of the Patriotic War (1st and 2nd class) and the Order of Alexander Nevsky.
When the war was over, he decided to stay on in the army and become a career officer. For the first few years, he served in the Soviet Far North. In 1949, Davidovich enrolled in the Frunze Academy in Moscow, the oldest and most prestigious command and staff school in the Soviet Army, to undergo advanced training. He stayed at the Academy for three years, graduating with distinction in November 1952, and would have gone on to postgraduate studies in the military-scientific field — but his name was crossed off the list of candidates with no explanation. Since this was 1952, no explanation was necessary. That was the time of the campaign against the “rootless cosmopolitans,” which had a pronounced anti-Jewish component. The Jewish physicians accused of assassinating (or plotting to assassinate) the Soviet leaders were already under arrest. However, Davidovich managed to avoid persecution: He was assigned to the Belorussian Military District, where he served as lecturer in an advanced training program for officers. During the Khrushchev Thaw, the "Jewish Question" in the USSR became somewhat less acute, and Soviet Jews had a breathing spell. In 1961, having published a number of articles on operations and troop training, Davidovich was made a district staff officer — an unusual distinction for a Jew, even in those relatively liberal times — and given command of a model company, one of the best of its kind in the Soviet army. Three years later, he was promoted to colonel — the highest rank to which a Jew could normally aspire in the Soviet Union. In the course of his service, he suffered several heart attacks, which eventually led to his discharge in 1969.
In the early 1970s, Davidovich became a leading figure in the Soviet Jewish movement that fought against state antisemitism in the USSR and advocated for national revival and for the right of Jews to immigrate to Israel. In 1972, a criminal investigation was opened against him, on charges of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. He was soon arrested, but released a day later, on his own recognizance. For six months, he was subjected to interrogations, which caused spells of unconsciousness and another heart attack. After one such interrogation, he was placed in an intensive care unit. The investigation against him was dropped under public pressure in May 1973, yet the harassment continued: Smear articles against him were published, and he was prevented from going to Moscow. In May 1975, after speaking at an anti-Fascist rally in the area of the former Minsk Ghetto, Davidovich was stripped of his rank of colonel in retirement, along with the pension and medical care to which he had been entitled. He died in April 1976, after his fifth heart attack.
His last wish was to be buried in Israel. When his wife and daughter finally got permission to leave the USSR for Israel, they exhumed his remains and took them along. Yefim Davidovich was reburied with military honors on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, with members of the Israeli government taking part in the funeral procession. Colonel Davidovich was awarded the title of honorary colonel in the Israel Defense Forces.
"To the great joy of victory was added a great sorrow over what had befallen the Jews of Europe. As town after town was liberated in the closing days of the war, we learned that each one had had its own Babi Yar. Traveling across the Ukraine and Poland in the wake of the retreating German armies, and passing through what had once been vigorous Jewish communities, I came upon only two survivors: a middle-aged man from Lvov whose family had all been killed, and a seven-year-old boy whom we took with us on the way to Volyn [Volhynia]—a skeleton of a child with bluish skin and a dead look in his eyes that would change now and then to a look of terror. It was a miracle that life still remained in that emaciated body. At first the boy barely answered my questions, but when I began talking to him in Yiddish his eyes came to life a bit and he told me the terrible but all too common story of how his whole family had been murdered. Later on, when the war was over, I met other Jewish survivors, but though I had no precise information about it, I knew instinctively that my family in Minsk had not succeeded in escaping the common fate.
The golden age of Soviet Jewry came to an end in my opinion with the beginning of the war, though there are people older than I who point to the 1939 Soviet-German Pact and claim this happened much earlier. Perhaps it did, but in my experience, which is all I am attempting to document here, the first tangible, and overwhelming, evidence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union dates from June 1941 when it became clear that no effort was being made to counteract the brutal anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis, either in the Red Army or among the population as a whole. The only exceptions to the general Soviet silence on this subject were a few articles by Ilya Ehrenburg and one or two other well-known Jewish writers, but eventually these articles too were suppressed by order of the Central Committee (of the Communist Party), and no mention was permitted in print of either Nazi atrocities or Jewish heroism at the front. Jews were also beginning to be barred during this same period from high military and political posts, though there were many Jews serving as ordinary soldiers and junior officers, as well as many in charge of divisions, companies, and battalions, like General Lev, who held the designation Hero of the Soviet Union, and was commander of a famous infantry division. There were also many Jews working in the “brain trust,” and in the operations sections, as well as many who held posts as heads of staff. One of them, Major Gruzenberg, who was head of the operations section of the division staff quarters in which I fought, was especially memorable for the way he combined profound analytic skill with high military training and personal courage. Another person of high military culture was Colonel Zilper, our divisional chief of staff, who was later replaced by another Jewish officer, Colonel Brevdo. But even distinguished officers like these remained for the most part at the lower rungs of the command ladder, and were seldom given access to the very highest command posts, with the exception of one or two brilliant military talents like General Kreizer, who had distinguished himself from the very first days of the war in the fighting around Borisov, and who retained continuous command of an army almost throughout the war. In fairness, I should note too that Jews who did achieve high positions did not for the most part stress their Jewishness. There were quite a few Jewish officers and soldiers who concealed the fact, partly out of fear of what might happen if they fell into German hands, partly out of fear of a bullet in the back from one of our own anti-Semites, who had begun to understand that they could do such things with impunity. I myself served under one such officer, a brave and intelligent man who before the war had been a bookkeeper in a Jewish kolkhoz in the Crimea and who later died a hero’s death during the storming of Zolochev. One day this lieutenant confided to me, in darkest secrecy, that he was not a Bielorussian, as most people thought, but a Jew, though I had known it all along.
"The Making of a Dissident," Commentary, 62:6 (December 1976)