Narrated: Ruvim Katz, St-Petersburg, Russia
English Translation: Daniel Klionsky, webmaster
Editing: Janet (Mikhlin) Neice , Detroit
Posted on: July 25, 2013
Last Updated on: July 25, 2013

This biography of Lazar (The name is derived from the Hebrew name אֶלְעָזָר (Elʿazar, or Eliezer), meaning "God has helped") Mikhlin (1903-1987) was narrated by Ruvim Katz, his close friend and his first cousin.

Lazar is a colorful figure in the Mikhlin family. His thirst for knowledge and peasant savvy propelled this illiterate Jewish boy to become a Ph. D. and a teacher at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Soviet Russia.

If you are a registered member of our site, you can always review information about Lazar and his descendants by following this link.

Lazar Mikhlin, 36 years old in 1939, Klimovichi
Lazar’s father, Moishe Mikhlin (1883-1915) was the youngest son of cantor Abram Mikhlin and maternal uncle of Ruvim.

The only definite memory of his father was his return home as a disabled veteran after serving in the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. Moishe had survived a gas attack by the Germans, but as he was injured, he was discharged and sent home.

He died shortly thereafter. Moishe was married off early at age 18 to Pesya Katz who was from a large family (she was Ruvim’s aunt, the sister of his father Isaac) in a small village about 30 km from Petrovichi called Kholmi ("Hills", in Russian).

The marriage was arranged by Moishe’s older brother, Iekhiel-Mikhel Mikhlin (1873-1949), who was in business selling meat in an open market with the Katz family.

The newly married couple moved to settle down in Kholmi. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anywhere to live in Kholmi.
So Pesya’s parents bought the couple a hut, which had previously been an ordinary village bathhouse. In this hut, Pesya gave birth to 5 children, and Lazar was the second born.

There is not any additional saved information about Moishe Mikhlin, Lazar’s father. He died early at age 30 and his family was left without a breadwinner while some children were still very young.

How they lived, says Ruvim Katz, you could only wish upon your enemies. They lived in terrible poverty without even flour to bake bread. For this reason, Lazar’s family resorted to buying cheap bread remnants from the village panhandlers.

Given their bearded appearance, the panhandlers were called “elders.” Being constantly hungry, Pesya’s children were running to Ruvim’s family home and they were fed there.

At age 8, Lazar was already working around the house and in the fields, as well as his other two brothers, Girsha and Lippa.

Despite the poverty, the local Rebbe would visit and taught the children how to read and write in Yiddish and in Russian, as well as 4 arithmetic operations.

In principle, it was expected to feed the Rebbe and when possible, to pay him extra compensation. However, since this family was so impoverished, the Rebbe taught the lessons for free and without a meal.

In the end, the children’s hard work allowed them to save up some money, and when Lazar was 18, the family bought a real log house, a cow and a horse. Ruvim and Lazar became friends (despite having an age difference of 15 years) when they would take their horses out at night for a stroll.

In the mid-1920’s, when Lazar turned 20, he was drafted into the Red Army’s horse artillery unit. It turned out that all of his fellow soldiers were illiterate.

They were taught to read as they marched with huge letters hanging off their backs. While riding horses, the rear soldiers were well-accustomed to letters. As for Lazar, he did not need to participate in these drills.

He regularly read his books to fellow soldiers and wrote letters home on their behalf. Every spare minute he had, he used to expand his horizons. His thirst for knowledge was incredible.

It also turned out that he was very capable with mechanical vehicles. This capability was noticed by the Political Commissar.

When his service was coming to an end, the Commissar called Leizer into his office and said, “In Minsk, a new Jewish technical school has opened. Why don’t you go there to continue your education? I can write a recommendation for you.”
click to enlarge
Lazar in 1926

Lazar readily agreed to enroll in Rabfak. Rabfak was comparable to 7 years of education, and upon graduation from the school, students were eligible to apply for college.

Three years later, after completing his studies, Lazar returned to his native village of Khomi. In his hands, he held a book by the famous Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem.

He read funny stories from the book to the villagers and everyone laughed. Lazar held a very high authority in the community. He would tell his friends stories from when he was a student and it was hard to tell which were true and which were not.

For example, Ruvim remembers one funny episode during a Natural History lesson that was held in a class where there was a human skeleton. The teacher called on one of the students and asks him to talk about any organ of the human body, using the exhibit for the example.

The puzzled student stood scratching his head and did not know where to begin. Finally, tired of waiting, a neighbor of the student loudly wispered to him in Yiddish:

“Haim, kheyb on fun di betzyim.” (Haim, start with the testicles !)

In Khlomi, Lazar married Basya Katz (1908-2000), his first cousin on his mother’s side and at the same time Ruvim’s first cousin. She was his childhood sweetheart.

Basya studied at Moscow and the newly married couple left for Moscow where Lazar submitted an application to be admitted to the Institute of Electrical Aircraft Equipment.

At that time, the brigade method was used for studies *. Based on this educational method, the school would accept any student from the group following the examinations for admissions, and all were enrolled.

However, it was each student’s responsibility to carry the entire group through school.

This is how Lazar became a student. The Institute was soon transferred to Leningrad and it was renamed the Military Engineering Academy after Mozhaiskii. Lazar studied diligently.

However, he still had to feed his family, so he found a part-time job as an electrician, wiring electrical lines at private homes and cottages.

And Lazar also unloaded wagons filled with coal at the railway station and gathered wood from docked barges at the pier. Lazar would take on any job and he had tremendous physical strength.
Ruvim remembers how at home in Khlomi, Lazar could even lift an adult cow!

Once, during his summer holidays as a student, Lazar came home to Khlomi wearing a 3-piece suit—a “troika” (jacket, waistcoat and trousers). No one in the village had seen anything like that yet.

It was a real triumph for Lazar!

Lazar graduated from the Academy with Honors and he was offered a position to stay and work in the department of “Electrical Machine” as a Research and Teacher Assistant. Once he defended his thesis, he became a lecturer.

From the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, life changed dramatically.

In the summer of 1941, Lazar’s older brother, Girsha Mikhlin (1901-1941), his wife and all 3 of his children were shot by the Germans in Klimovichi.

His younger brother Lippa (Leonid) Mikhlin (1904-1988) was sent to the Front with the Red Army, but his wife and children were not evacuated in time. They were also shot to death by the Nazis in Klimovichi.

During the war, the Academy and the teaching staff were evacuated with their families from Leningrad to the city of Yoshkar-Ola in the interior of the country.
click to enlarge
Lazar with mother, his siblings and their spouses in Klimovichi,

 1939 г.
It was a very difficult time. The government-issued food rations cards were not enough, leaving the evacuated families to starve.
click to enlarge
Soviet propaganda poster of 1957:

Feed pigs for bacon!
In the near future we will catch up with America in meat production!
It was at this point that Lazar and his wife Basya brought their peasant skills into full force.

They bought a piglet at the market and fed him edible waste mixed with cut grass. Lazar, unlike the people born in cities, knew how to mow grass since his childhood.

Once the pig had grown to adult size, it was slaughtered, and a new piglet was bought so the process could continue. And this way, Lazar and his family always had meat and bacon.

Ruvim remembers that a fellow evacuee named Epstein once told Ruvim how he went to visit Lazar during this difficult period in Yoshkar-Ola. He was starving... Basya, seeing the hunger in Epstein’s eyes, cut him off a slice of bread and added a piece of bacon to it.

This brought Epstein back to life again.

After the war, the Academy returned to Leningrad and Lazar continued to teach.

Over the years, he co-authored books for the students (cadets) at the Academy.

They included the following topics:

Electrics of aircrafts;
Guide to the study of systems of power supply equipment;
Power supplies of radio systems;
Electrical and electronics materials.
click to enlarge
Student books co-authored by Lazar, 1960s.

Lazar 67 years old in 1970, Leningrad The food situation had not improved by much post war.

The main objective of the postwar Soviet government under Josef Stalin was to restore heavy industry.

The Cold War had begun as well as the arms race and all the high costs that came with it. When it became clear that the Soviet Union did not have enough food, the government under Nikita Khrushchev adopted a law in 1958 to develop so called "gardening communities".

In the cities, the local authorities started distributing vacant plots of land to initiate the independent production of agricultural products.

All urban residents working in large industrial enterprises, academia, and government institutions were eligible to receive land. However, a variety of restrictions were put in place.

The size of the horticultural area could not exceed 6 hundered square meters (yards). It was also forbidden to build a winter home, a two-story house, or a basement, etc.

The total area of the garden could not exceed 25 square yards.

Lazar received his coveted 6 hundred yards but the plot was located on swampy land. Lazar and Basya again engaged in peasant labor, while continuing their main employment in the city.

They built a house, planted apple trees, fruit and berry bushes, vegetables, and strawberries. The house was 25 square yards, and in the attic, Lazar managed to develop an additional small room (approx. 8 square yards).

This did not escape the watchful eye of the authorities. An audit commission was sent to the house at the authorities’ request and they boarded up the door to the small room. In front of the garden area was a huge puddle, so Lazar decided to fill it in with sand.

There wasn’t any sand around (it was a swamp after all), so he had to bring it from the city. With each visit to the garden, Lazar would bring a little bit of sand in his small Soviet car “Moskvich.”

In the end, he had collected enough sand to fill up the puddle. He then planted a bush of black currant. And as before, the Audit Commission back to his garden.

They surveyed the land and claimed he had expanded his space from 6 to 8 acres. Furthermore, it was forbidden to plant any crops on the site.

The patch was taken over by weeds and ultimately lost ***.

At Lazar’s funeral in1987, the Chief of the Academy said that Lazar’s books are still the best source and teachers continue to use them with students of the Academy...

Lazar’s descendants live in St. Petersburg, Russia; Tallinn, Estonia; and in Torino, Italy.

If you are a registered member of our site, you can always review information about them by following this link.

*Rabfak in Russian is Рабфак, a syllabic abbreviation of Рабочий факультет (Rabochiy fakultet, "Workers' Faculty"). It was the Workers' University in the Soviet Union and it prepared Soviet workers to enter institutions of higher education [From Wikipedia].

**This was an adaptation of the “Dalton Plan” which takes its name from an early educational system developed originally at the Dalton School in Dalton, Massachusetts in 1920.

***It should be noted that Lazar suffered here because he was not a member of the Party’s state “nomenklatura.” He was just an ordinary Soviet citizen.