M. J. Nicholas is the pen name of Nicholas H. Burlak, chosen to honor his two older brothers, Mike and John.
Nicholas was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. in 1924, the youngest in his family, and spent his early childhood as a typical American kid. His father, a Ukrainian immigrant, labored at Bethlehem Steel but lost his job and home in the Great Depression. The family moved to New York City, living in a basement apartment in exchange for janitorial work. To help make ends meet, the boys stood in line for bread, sold newspapers and shined shoes (where young Nicholas drew and sold for a nickle profiles of their customers).
In the 1930s, answering the Soviet Union’s call for skilled industrial workers the family moved to Makeyevka, Soviet Ukraine, home of the huge Kirov mettalurgical plant where his father was employed. That is where Nicholas came of age.
He was 16 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, 21 June, 1941, at the beginning of World War Two. Faced with the advancing German armies, his father sent him east to his brother Rodion in Kazakhstan, for the boy’s safety. But Nicholas wanted desperately to fight the fascists and at 17, through the help of the well known Russian writer Alexei Tolstoy, he was enrolled in a military school in Moscow and then enlisted in the Soviet Red Army as an American volunteer.
Nicholas became a tank commander. He fought in the huge tank battle of Kursk, and in the Soviet Operations Bagration, Vistula-Oder and Berlin. He helped liberate the Nazi death camp Majdanek in Poland and a POW camp for American and British pilots in Pomerania.
During the war, he was wounded four times and shell-shocked twice. Nevertheless he returned to the front each time and entered Berlin with the Soviet Red Army.
On one of the walls of the German Reichstag in Berlin, his autograph was the only one written in English. It read:
Bethlehem, Pa., U.S.A. – Makeyevka, Ukraine
– Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan – Berlin, Germany – 2 May 1945 Nicholas
After World War Two, Nicholas completed his higher education in Fürstenberg, Germany and Kiev, Ukraine. He married and raised a family. He became a dramatist and musical theatre director in the Kherson district of Ukraine.
At the height of his theatrical career, Nicholas was tapped by Gosconcert in Moscow’s Ministry of Culture to serve as head director for exchange of artists between the U.S.S.R. and many countries of the world, including the U.S.A. In that role, he oversaw the 1960s and 1970s ground-breaking tours of the Soviet Union by Duke Ellington, Alvin Ailey, New York Jazz Repertory Company and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
At Gosconcert he produced and toured variety show programs, which were staged throughout the U.S.S.R., India, Africa and Latin America.
In 1994, Nicholas was finally able to return to his American homeland. Now in his 80s, he lives modestly in Newton, Massachusetts. He continues to write and appears publicly performing his non-fiction stories for American audiences.