This is part of an ongoing series featuring Holocaust survivors. If you have a story to share, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Milwaukeean Lazar Troychanskiy is a man who seems to stay focused on the bright side of his life.
Gratitude for the loving family he was born into, his happy childhood and his current good fortune, seem to have enabled this Holocaust survivor to live a full life in spite of the terrible tragedies he endured and witnessed between 1941 and 1946.
In a Russian-language memoir that he wrote in the early 1980s for his children (and had translated into English), Troychanskiy expresses wonder that “this remarkable and surprising country [for] which I have done absolutely nothing useful,” granted him citizenship and “has ensured a wonderful life for me.”
But Troychanskiy, in fact, has done much for his adopted country.
When he emigrated to the U.S. from Belarus in the former Soviet Union in 1993, he did not speak English, was already 69-years-old and had retired from his profession as an accountant and economist.
He came at his son’s urging. A physics teacher, then in his early 30s, his son reached the limit of his tolerance of the anti-Semitism that he experienced at school in Minsk in the late 1980s.
Moreover, Lazar’s grandson, then 17, would soon be drafted into the army and sent to fight in Chechnya.
So Lazar and his second wife, Yelizaveta (“Liza”) Shibayeva, left just behind his daughter and her husband and two children.
Though Lazar feared that he and his wife were too old to make such a move, he considered the well-being of his children and grandchildren. His son and daughter settled in New York, but Lazar and Liza came to Milwaukee, where her brother had been living since 1973.
Upon arriving in Milwaukee, Troychanskiy realized immediately that what he had been told by his government and believed for his whole life about the United States — that it was inferior to the Soviet Union in every way — was completely untrue.
He resolved to do all that he could for his new country and city and he committed himself to fighting anti-Semitism and fascism.
From the beginning, he has done as many volunteer jobs as he could, he said, including serving the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations and speaking to students in schools about his Holocaust experiences. He has been voted president of the Russian-speaking residents of his building, he said.
Still busy and robust at 84, Troychanskiy met with The Chronicle in his apartment on Juneau Avenue in downtown Milwaukee last week, to talk about his life — or what seem to be his nine lives.
The first child of Khaim and Khasya Troychanskiy, Lazar was born on Jan. 21, 1924, the day that “the leader of the proletarian revolution” Vladimir Lenin died.
His parents dedicated themselves completely to the care and education of their children, one daughter and three sons, in Slutsk, Belarus, located just 40 kilometers from the Polish border.
Slutsk was home to some 15,000 “handicraftsmen, shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, joiners, glaziers, tinsmiths and many other specialists,” a considerable percent of whom were Jews.
Lazar’s father became expert in the trades of both his father and father-in-law — blacksmith and wheelwright. Kind, honest and hard-working according to Troychanskiy, his father knew everyone in the area, Jew and non-Jew, and enjoyed an excellent reputation.
The bubble of Troychanskiy’s protected early life abruptly burst on the day following his high school graduation. Always attracted to things military, he had just been interviewed and accepted to a military academy in Leningrad for the following fall.
On Sunday, June 22, 1941, en route to meet a friend for a day at the beach, Troychanskiy noticed several unusual military activities and then a full-blown aerial firefight between several German and Soviet aircraft.
To Troychanskiy’s shock, the German aircraft dominated and shot down the Soviet planes. He abandoned his plans and rushed home to inform his family that the German army and war were on their way.
From then on, the lives of the citizens of Slutsk, and especially its Jews, deteriorated further with each passing day. By the fourth day, the occupying German soldiers were already terrorizing the local people — taking food from their homes, firing at them from low-flying planes and arresting individuals and groups of Jews or shooting them dead wherever they stood.
Eventually Jews were forbidden to appear in public, and the Troychanskiys remained in their home and worked together to survive. They received gifts of food from peasants for whom Lazar’s father had worked.
But in the spring of 1942, the German occupiers decided to ghettoize the Jews of Slutsk. Resettled in a four-room house with another family, the Troychanskiys realized they were losing more and more control of their destiny.
For a year and a half the German army carried out small and large pogroms inside the ghetto, shooting Jews in their houses or rounding them up, transporting them to the countryside and shooting large numbers all at once.
On Nov. 6, 1942, “a real massacre took place in our ghetto … in which more than 1,000 Jews were murdered, from babies to old people,” Troychanskiy wrote in his memoir.
Then on Feb. 8, 1943, “the Slutsk ghetto ceased to exist, and all the Jewish population of the town was completely murdered by the Nazis….”
Troychanskiy and his father were pushed into trucks at the ghetto entrance as they left for work that morning. While they were held, Khasya Troychanskiy and her two youngest children, 13-year-old Khavele and 8-year-old Motele, were shot dead along with all of the remaining ghetto dwellers.
That night from the Slutsk prison where they had been locked up Lazar saw the ghetto burning.
“I felt my heart break into pieces because I was unable to come to help to my dear mother Khasya, my brothers Motele and Berele and my sister Khavele in that most critical moment in their life,” he wrote in his memoir.
That night Lazar and his father discovered that Berele had survived and was there in the Slutsk prison. The three were transported to several prisons in the following days and Lazar and his father ended up in Trostenets concentration camp near Minsk.
Here “Jews from various European countries, [especially] Germany, were brought for annihilation in the crematorium furnace, which was smoking around the clock.” The camp also contained workshops in which prisoners of different trades worked.
Lazar said “it was a very severe … camp” where prisoners were forced to stand in formations all day and very often someone was beaten to death or just shot dead in front of everyone for some “offence.”
One day after witnessing a particularly harrowing sight — a barn full of murdered prisoners stacked one on top of another and a group of 10 prisoners about to be shot by “SS-men,” Lazar found his father and shouted to him to run. Somehow, the two managed to escape from the forge, where they had been working, out of the camp and into the woods.
Once outside, they found the countryside full of guerilla squads. Eventually, the two walked toward the front and found the Red Army of the Soviet Union. Lazar joined them.
He served some 18 months in the infantry, sustaining battle injuries on three occasions. His final army campaign took place in battle for Konigsberg in April 1945.
After the war, Lazar and his father worked together in Slutsk. Eventually, Lazar fulfilled his father’s dream that at least one of his children would be able to work with his brain instead of with his body.
Lazar secured a job in a bank and learned accounting. He rose in the field, married and had a daughter and a son. When he retired, he didn’t imagine that new chapters of his life were yet to unfold.
Troychanskiy has become almost driven in his passion to share his story. As he wrote in his memoir, “I would like very much if my descendants have an exact and complete understanding of what caused us, elderly people, to abandon the place where our ancestors lived and where the tombs of our relatives and close people are….”
“…I see my duty now to tell my life, sequentially and step-by-step, to dwell about what I know about it and what remained in my memory.”