Holocaust survivor crafts story of love from old memories

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Tad Wojnicki re-members taking his first steps. He also remembers two Soviet soldiers entering his family's remote hideout and demanding breakfast. It was the moment the family was liberated from Nazi rule.

Being born into a Jewish family in Poland near the end of the Holocaust continues to afflict the Carmel resident — in part because his family long denied its heritage.

It is also the theme of his novel, "Lying Under the Fig Trees," the story about a rekindled romance, hope and betrayal.

In this semi-autobiographical story, the main character, Teddy, pursues the freedom to live and deals with the repercussions.

Wojnicki was born to a family cramped into a small cabin in the southeastern corner of the mountains of Poland, a safe haven adjacent to the treacherous tyranny and genocide surrounding them.

After the Holocaust, his parents succeeded in keeping their Jewish background a secret, until 14-year-old Wojnicki came across hidden candles, which aroused his suspicion. He became intrigued and sought out a genealogy professor, who traced his family name.

"You are not Polish, you are Jewish, but please do not despair," he recalls the professor saying.

Shocked, the young Wojnicki then confronted his father, who told him the truth. That sparked a fascination about his Jewish past.

He began studying, and eventually earned a doctorate in religious studies. A graduate of San Francisco State University's creative writing program, he now teaches writing at Hartnell College in Salinas.

His book cites a passage in the biblical story of Zachariah, which Wojnicki adopts as a guide in life.

"To lie under the fig tree means to be happy, satisfied, righteous, appreciated, not to fear your neighbors…total happiness," he says.

It is a book that expounds upon "our Jewish approach to things — [that] we have had our hopes dashed and the next thing to do is pick up again."

In the novel, Teddy rekindles an old romance from Poland during a rendez-vous in Mexico. He fantasized a future with this woman of his past, and saw no reason to believe circumstances would yield otherwise.

They did.

Though "Lying Under the Fig Trees" is a novel of high hopes being shattered, it is also about a man surmounting an abrupt awakening from the dream of idealism.

"My book is about the cycle of rising one's hope to the max, and then being betrayed and falling and being destroyed," says Wojnicki, "and then finding the strength to go up, to get up and run again."

This is also the story of the Jews. Referring to Genesis, Wojnicki says, "Every man and woman find their paradise and lose it. But it's worth it."