Born Iosif Solomonovich Grossman into an emancipated Jewish family, he did not receive a traditional Jewish education. A Russian nanny turned his name Yossya into Russian Vasya (a diminutive of Vasily), which was accepted by the whole family. His father had social-democratic convictions and joined the Mensheviks. Young Vasily Grossman idealistically supported the Russian Revolution of 1917.
When the Great Patriotic War broke out in 1941, Grossman's mother was trapped in Berdichev by the invading German army, and eventually murdered together with 20,000 to 30,000 other Jews who did not evacuate Berdychiv. Grossman was exempt from military service, but volunteered for the front, where he spent more than 1,000 days. He became a war reporter for the popular Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). As the war raged on, he covered its major events, including the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the Battle of Berlin. In addition to war journalism, his novels (such as The People are Immortal (Народ бессмертен)) were being published in newspapers and he came to be regarded as a legendary war hero. The novel Stalingrad (1950), later renamed For a Just Cause (За правое дело), is based on his own experiences during the siege.
Grossman's descriptions of ethnic cleansing in Ukraine and Poland, and the liberation of the Treblinka and Majdanek extermination camps, were some of the first eyewitness accounts —as early as 1943—of what later became known as 'The Holocaust'. His article The Hell of Treblinka 1944) was disseminated at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal as evidence for the prosecution.
Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, not knowing whether his novels would ever be read by the public.