I never knew a time when my family kept my grandfather’s past hidden from me. Nazis had written his slavery directly on his arm in the form of crude, trackable numbers, which he often allowed to remain visible. Initially, I knew little about the horrific experience he endured, and many years later, I still struggle to assemble the pieces of his broken childhood. Regardless of what little I initially understood of his experiences, I grew up connecting my grandfather’s upbringing to strife and anguish.
It could have been a matter of happenstance, but this familial connection to the Holocaust most likely motivated my parents’ decision to tune into a television special on Anne Frank one evening when I was in the second grade. Despite the linkable circumstances surrounding Anne and my grandfather’s teen years, not to mention the mere two-year age difference between them, I immediately gravitated to this vivacious girl’s remarkable diary for a different reason.
Young, talented, and published, Anne became a role model for my eight-year-old writing spirit. At the time, I adored creative writing and had dreams of blowing everyone away with my ability to craft what I felt were captivating stories. “I will become published,” I assured myself. “But she’s so young!" I imagined adults would gasp in surprise at my early successes. As a young girl who had achieved this feat, Anne struck me as both relatable and exceptional.
I informed my mother that I was determined to read Anne’s diary. Completely supportive, she encouraged me to obtain the book from my school’s library. But when I attempted to do just that, I was told that I was permitted to only check out books from the school's pre-determined selection of age appropriate material. I returned home with Henry and Mudge instead of The Diary of a Young Girl.
“Why are you reading that book?” my mom questioned with surprise when she caught me pursuing the pages in our family room. “What happened to Anne Frank?”
I felt like I had messed something up—I felt ashamed. “They wouldn’t let me check out the book. The librarian said that this,” I referenced the book in my hands, “is what I’m allowed to read.”
My mother was livid. I later learned she had called to request an exception and to please allow me the opportunity to check out this book. She explained she would read it with me and guide me through the content. She connected our family to the events of the Holocaust. She even offered to volunteer at the library to prove her dedication. In return, the librarian responded with a cool and uncomplicated “no” before hanging up the phone.
“I’ll decide for myself what you’re capable of reading,” she insisted before we journeyed to our local library to obtain the iconic book. “You can and should be reading this book, and I want us to read it together.” Sometimes I read the entries on my own, but mostly my mom read the passages to me as I lay in bed at night.
Prior to this exposure to the famous diary, I had a very limited understanding of what my grandfather endured before arriving in the United States. I listened to his thick Russian accent, I watched as he struggled to walk with a pronounced limp, and I stole glances at the inked markings on his arms.
“What do your tattoos mean?” I finally got the courage to ask him one day. He explained he’d gotten a few over the years with friends, but the last one he described etched an indelible image in my mind. “I didn’t want this one,” he explained somberly. “The Germans forced me to have it.”
Forced? Someone forced him? The thought horrified me. I imagined someone holding him down while crudely and painfully inking his skin with arbitrary digits.
This conversation lingered in the back of my mind as my mother and I read Anne Frank’s thoughts aloud. My mom had prefaced the book by telling me that my grandfather, my father’s father, had lived through this dark time in history. Too young to understand that Anne and my grandfather’s stories were not synonymous, I wasn’t aware that other atrocities were occurring throughout Europe while the Franks lived fearfully in hiding. My eight-year-old imagination concocted a story for my grandfather -- he must have also lived in hiding until German Nazis forced him into a concentration camp.
“What was it like when Grandpop was in the concentration camp?” I finally asked my father after long dreading the response.
“Grandpop wasn’t in a concentration camp,” my dad explained. “He was in a slave labor camp.”
“Then why does he have the tattoo on his arm? Wasn’t he taken by the Nazis like Anne Frank was?”
“Well, not exactly.”
My grandfather, Gregory Trojanov, was born in 1927 in Russia. His father, a soldier for the Czar’s army (pictured leftmost), refused to submit to communism and was sentenced to death when my grandfather was six years old. He was present for the sentencing.
Following my great-grandfather’s death, my grandfather lived in communist Russia with his mother and older brother Nikolai, and they worked on a collective farm where they toiled for “the good of society.” Desperate to provide for her family single-handedly, my great-grandmother traveled great distances to find work. Employers were not eager to hire the wife of a perceived traitor.
At fourteen, my grandfather and Nikolai (pictured right), now nineteen, hid in their home terrified and confused, as Germans bombed a nearby city into unrecognizable fragments. Nikolai had only just returned home from the warfront after serving in the Russian army and escaping German captivity. After soldiers stole his shoes at gunpoint weeks beforehand, Nikolai walked many miles barefoot to return home to his brother. Soon after, the Nazis invaded my grandfather’s town, forcibly removing my grandfather, Nikolai, and countless families from their homes. Those who resisted were shot, and women were violated. The Nazis took those who obeyed their non-negotiable requests to cattle trains, on which they rode for weeks with only the clothes on their backs in the middle of winter. Many did not survive.
The train arrived in Bremerhaven, Germany, where Nazi soldiers announced that people fifteen and younger must go to the left, and those older than fifteen must go to the right. My grandfather and Nikolai could no longer remain together. Soldiers shipped him to a slave labor camp while they moved Nikolai to a centration camp. They never saw each other again, and they never knew for sure what had happened to their mother.
My grandfather remained in the camp, where I can only assume he received his tattoo, for three years while the war continued to rage. He slept in cramped barracks every night and traveled by cattle train each morning to the factory where he was forced to work. Thin, starving, and hardened by ruthless labor, he and the men he lived and worked with walked to their train under the Nazis’ watchful gaze. If they tripped, they were hit. If they fell, they were beaten. If they didn’t get up, they were shot. At the factory, they received their only meal before working a long and brutal day. Those who fell behind or performed unfavorably throughout the day would be taken outside and killed.
My grandfather lived this daily hell from fourteen to seventeen, but after three long years, it ended abruptly. The war turned in the Allies’ favor, especially once the United States became involved. Troops aggressively laid siege on the German army by air, land, and sea. Believing Nazi soldiers worked in the factory where my grandfather was enslaved, Allied forces bombed the factory, killing most of those inside.
Shrapnel caught my grandfather’s leg during the explosion and almost severed it completely. He lay bleeding in a field outside the factory, shouting for help in German. “Hilfe! Hilfe!” he begged before losing consciousness. In the confusion and panic, medics brought my grandfather to a German military hospital. The most likely explanation for this fortuitous access to medical treatment is his German distress call. He spoke the language extremely well, and it may have been thought that he was either German or could become an asset to the German army.
If this hadn’t indeed been the initial intention in saving my grandfather’s life, as he healed slowly in the hospital, it would eventually become the plan for his future. Like many Russian prisoners of war or Slavs targeted for their perceived racial inferiority, my grandfather had a potential, albeit expendable, use in the German army. To avoid this fate as a surrogate soldier for the enemy, my grandfather walked outside in freezing temperatures onto a sheet of ice, intentionally falling to break the same leg.
In another miraculous turn of events, he received further treatment instead of death. Witty, handsome, and personable, he may have charmed his way into receiving medical attention for the second time. His continued “luck” remains somewhat unexplainable.
My grandfather sat in nearly a full-body cast for what he believed was 16 months. Afterward, he once again carried out tasks as a forced laborer, and several times he landed on the receiving end of the blunt force of a nightstick. While this abuse continued, the end of the war approached from the distant horizon. June 6, 1944 marked the beginning of the Third Reich’s collapse with the invasion of Normandy. However, the Allies wouldn’t make inroads into Germany until almost a year after. Chaos ensued as Germany scrambled to resist the rising tide of the Allies. Wounded and retreating Nazi soldiers arrived at the hospital in which my grandfather clung to his existence as an injured forced laborer.
The Nazis occupied all available space within the medical facility, leaving no room for my grandfather. Almost fully healed, he was given a letter from the doctor explaining his medical condition and ordered to a nearby facility to continue treatment. And so, my grandfather began the freezing trek to his assigned location: Dachau. As he walked, letter in hand and a small, thin sweater pulled tight around him, an intense feeling of dread and terror overcame every fiber of his being. The camp came within view, and the sinking feeling gave way to a different understanding. Unaware of its large role in implementing mass extermination, my grandfather could feel the palpable misery of death and oppression seeping from the walls within. As he approached, he feared this would become his end.
He reached the Nazi guards at the gates and handed over the doctor’s letter. They summoned another guard to bring my grandfather to a doctor within the camp. As my grandfather stepped inside and left the front gates behind, he spoke in German, “Don’t forget my face. You’ll see me again. I’m coming back out. Don’t forget me.”
However, for whatever reason, “luck,” a strange and unsettling misnomer, struck again. The doctor, to whom he brought a damning note, most likely ordering his immediate extermination, released him from Dachau under the pretense that he would fight for the failing German army, a fate he again avoided.
Passing back through the gates of Dachau, emblazoned with the infamous “arbeit macht frei—work sets you free,” my grandfather remarkably escaped back to the hospital he had originally set out from, not knowing where else to turn. The war was rapidly ending, and most Germans soldiers previously occupying the surrounding area had now fled. Not long after, the Allies arrived, and unceremoniously, he was free.
Of course, as I sat at the kitchen table, a wide-eyed eight-year-old, my father didn’t share this with me all at once. I gathered the bits and pieces of this story as I grew older. With each year I earned another piece of the narrative. I aged into the ability to comprehend the atrocities my grandfather endured.
In fourth grade, I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and I learned more about my grandfather’s family and how he never saw them ever again. In tenth grade I read Night by Elie Wiesel and understood why my grandfather didn’t want to talk about what he went through. In college, I took a Holocaust studies course and impressed upon him why it was important that he should share his experience. In the final years of his life, he allowed me to interview him, and I listened to how he carried on through 86 years of life even after he was broken physically, but never mentally. He passed away two years later.
And today, after staging a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, I reflect on my initial foray into the confusing fog of human behavior at its worst. I re-examine how two young people, Anne and my grandfather, with light in their eyes and aspirations for the future, were engulfed in a hate that permanently destroyed millions of lives and ripped apart families and childhoods. In July of 1942, Anne, Margot, and Peter entered the annex at the age of 13, 16, and 15, respectively. At this point, at the age of 15—the same age as Peter van Pels—my grandfather had already spent a year working in a Nazi camp. By March of 1945, all residents of the Secret Annex had been murdered aside from Otto Frank, and my grandfather could not have known that the hope of his freedom was only a few months away. Fate could have easily reversed their circumstances.
I write this now for my grandfather and myself. For so long, I’ve carried the weight of familial obligation around my neck. For years I’ve wanted to take the time to pick apart and piece together this foundational aspect of my heritage and my personality. My drive to overcome adversity of all kinds stems from the realization and understanding that whatever challenges I face pale in comparison to my grandfather’s harrowing young life. College-educated, healthy, and surrounded by those who love and support me, I have all I need to live life fully and make something not only of myself, but of my family name.
My grandfather wanted me to chronicle these difficult years because he truly hoped his story might change hearts and minds in the face of prejudice, racism, and anti-Semitism. He wanted people to know that he existed for a purpose. In the same way that Anne hoped to live beyond the pages of her diary, my grandfather wanted to live beyond the personal hell he bore. By carrying these stories forward, future generations enable the storytellers to extend beyond their years on earth. They live in the change humanity affects by internalizing their bravery and their battles. Holocaust victims and survivors, as well as those affected by genocide across history, deserve the time and space in which we will listen. They live on in our actions for change.
Today and always I’ve known why I must live the dreams my grandfather had for me. “You’ll be a professor one day,” he’d always say. “One day you’ll write my story.”