He was born in the town of Bialystok, Poland. The day the German Army invaded his country on September 1, 1939 he was visiting Warsaw. Instead of returning home, he enlisted in the Polish Army. They were happy to take him, principally because he spoke faultless German. (In those days most Polish Jews spoke Yiddish only and they mistook him for a goy.)
He fought first against the Germans and then against the Russians (who in, 1939, had signed a non-aggression pact with the Germans).
He was captured and sent to Siberia.
He somehow escaped the Gulag and found his way to the UK through Scandinavia in 1942, and enlisted in the Free Polish Army there.
He was sent to North Africa where his unit was homologated into the British Army and he became a tank commander.
He fought in the Libyan desert against German General Rommel, (the Desert Fox), and, after the British defeated the Germans near Tobruk, he was posted to the European Theatre of War.
He was de-mobbed in 1945 and emigrated to Canada. He settled in Montreal where he founded a successful restaurant equipment business. That’s when I met him: through Henryk Voychik, a Polish classmate of mine at McGill. He needed an accountant for his restaurant equipment business so he hired me.
In 1967, he and Voychik, a passionate wine collector, decided to create an upscale “Russian” restaurant on Crescent Street, the street Johnny Vago, the maniacal Hungarian promoter ‘formulated’ in his mind and turned into reality as the centre of FUN and good eating and drinking in Anglo-Montreal (Winston Churchill Pub, Friar Tuck’s – and, of course the flagship establishment of the “street”, Thursdays Restaurant and Bar, with its tunnel that conveniently lead, for amorous couples of means, to the Hotel de la Montagne on the street one over).
To finance the project they secured a loan from the friendly manager of a bank around the corner and rented the semi-basement space of an old building a block and a half up the hill. He found a third partner for the venture – also Polish – who helped dig out the rubble and enlarge the space, repair the brickwork of the walls and install the equipment provided by the restaurant equipment business. For decoration, they bought yards and yards of red brocade that they artfully draped over the old mirror-frames hung from the walls they had picked up for a song from pawnbrokers on Craig Street.
He had an old Russian musician friend whom he talked into playing sentimental Russian songs on opening night and, voila, MONTREAL’S LEGENDARY TROIKA RESTAURANT WAS BORN (click on URL below) with Sacha, the Russian violinist, a regular fixture.
He met and married a Lufthansa stewardess with whom he had two kids. He ran the Troika for over forty years and then sold it to an Egyptian who had little flair for promoting elegant restaurants.
He retired to his farm near Stowe in Vermont, contracted some sort of lung infection that was misdiagnosed by his doctors and died prematurely ten years ago.
He was one of the many unsung heroes of our times – a courageous, dedicated, adventurous non-quitter, and a loyal friend.
His name was Ted Lewkowski and I had the honour of being his friend during more than four decades.
Requiescat in Pace.
VERY INTERSTING STORY AND VERY WELL WRITTEN
My dear Robert – once again, across the generations, our paths crossed, though we did not know it. Years ago, back in the 1980s, I was still making my bones in the film business as a location hunter. I was given the pleasurable task of locating and negotiating a “Russian” restaurant for a film shoot and, of course, entered the Troika. There I met, not Ted, but, possibly his son? In any case, it was a younger man I dealt with for the shoot, which went off without a hitch. This younger man sat me done and treated me to an outstanding lunch of borsht and piroshki asked me to return so that he could show his gratitude for arranging the contract but, sadly, I never did. Perhaps this person was the manager? He told me he ran the place with his wife, but memory might be faulty – I dealt with so many locations during those years. Or maybe it was Ted, but, he looked so young. Thank you for this memory – once more, you have reminded us, true Montrealers, of a personality who contributed so much in making Montreal a truly fantastic city, an exceptional place which was once the envy of North America and a gem of the international scene. This was not the peevish, navel-gazing Montreal which now cuts the city in two with bullshit arguments of “protecting the mountain,” not the Montreal of privileged “arrondissements,” of protectionist bureaucrats, but a mobile city, a city which was open to all and in which all had access. Thank you!
Very interesting piece, a wonderful slice of city life. Thanks for all the detail. One minor correction, Bialystok is a city, not a town, and had a pre-war population of more than 100,000.
Robert , your stories are riveting . As I have remarked previously you are the perfect raconteur. I am humbled ,entertained and enlightened every time I read your blogs . Do keep them coming.
Cher Robert, I thought, with anticipation, I was starting to read one of your new novels… you are definitely due… I have always been interested in Second World War history, events and stories. In fact, I had just gotten back from seeing the Oscar nominated film portraying Churchill “The Darkest Hour” (I do recommend it),indeed a troubling and memorable time. I thus was delighted by the beginning of your story: something foreign, something captivating, something “relatable”(sic), something local. The ingredients are all there. I remember having been, so many years ago, to the great TROIKA Montreal Restaurant, and with the music of the passionate violinist, closing my eyes, in the midst of winter, easily imagining I was riding a troika on the way to Tolstoi’s Datcha…Anyways, what I am sad about now is that I did not then know the owner and his rich and dramatic family saga, like so many East Europeans, I am sure we crossed so many times in our lives in the past years, and from whom we could have learned so much. MERCI Robert de garder de tels précieux souvenirs vivants. However, there is on thing I must say: which is that I find you somewhat exagerate when you say your friend, the owner of the Troika, who passed away some ten years ago, therefore around 2007-2008, Who enlisted for war in 1939 ( assuming he would have been young, but at least 20 years old or somewhere around that age) passed away “prematurely”, when that puts him (roughly) around 90 years old!!??? I suppose we should look at it positively. Robert, you are one of those who see yourself as being there for the long run… and that’s very good! TRÈS CORDIALEMENT, Linda Julien.
I love reading your blogs albeit from the other side of the pond – always interesting and informative. Troika, in its original format and later, escaped me though – predating my love affair with Montreal and its inhabitants. However, having visited St Petersburg only last week with my husband, I sampled borscht and piroshki for the first time – wonderful, as were the Russians we were lucky enough to meet.