a black and white picture of a man and a woman sitting on a bench. she is holding flowers which have been artificially colored bright purple
From the cover of "Torn Lilacs: A True World War II Story of Love, Defiance and Hope" by Henry Michalski.

A harrowing tale of survival wrapped around a love story 

Fela Kuvent, born in 1919 in the Polish town of Gostynin, was a smart, vivacious, dark-eyed girl who loved to sing, dance and enjoy life in her Jewish milieu. She met her future husband, Joska Michalski, just as Nazi Germany was casting its ominous shadow across her homeland.

Over the next horrific decade, Fela and her brother Kuba fled Poland on foot, evaded the Nazis, were arrested trying to enter the Soviet Union, and were imprisoned, released, betrayed and separated multiple times. They located Joska, who had abandoned the Polish army, in a Russian POW camp, and for a short time the three barely survived by their wits in the same Russian border town.

But as Poles, as refugees and, worse, as Jews, the Soviets saw them as free labor. They sent Joska to prison and Kuba and Fela to a remote island in Siberia, where for years she felled trees, far from everyone she knew. One winter, lost in a snowstorm, she fell through some ice and her legs froze solid. Rescued by comrades, she developed gangrene, and was hours away from having her legs amputated.

“I need my legs,” she insisted, refusing the operation. Overnight, the blood in her legs miraculously began to flow, and she recovered.

Toward the end of the war, Fela and Joska were released from their respective Soviet imprisonments and, beyond all probability, found their way to the same wretched village in Kazakhstan, where they were married — in poverty, in poor health and in love. Fela suffered two bouts of typhus and a tapeworm that depleted her remaining strength, and in this condition, bore two healthy sons.

And all of this before she turned 28.

Author Henry Michalski (Photo/Robert Zingmark)
Author Henry Michalski (Photo/Robert Zingmark)

The younger of those two sons was Henyk (Chaim) Michalski, and when he was 4, the family obtained entry visas to the United States. Except for Kuba, who made it to Israel, Fela and Joska were the only surviving members of their respective families.

Now Henyk, who goes by Henry, is  a San Francisco resident and retired history teacher who has written the complete account of his family’s odyssey. Most Jewish families have their own incredible 20th-century sagas. But this biography of his parents, “Torn Lilacs: A True World War II Story of Love, Defiance and Hope,” would strain credibility were it fictional.

“I don’t have an imagination good enough to make up these things that happened. They are all true stories,” Michalski told J. by phone as he drove around the Bay Area, dropping off books.

Published in late November, it is his first book, not counting a nonfiction account of the Jewish history of Napa County, co-authored with Donna Mendelsohn in 2012.

The lilacs of the title refer to Fela’s favorite flowers, which Joska brought when he was courting her in the springtime of their prewar innocence. And if Fela and Joska Michalski were destined to be together, each other’s beshert, their son Henry was also destined to play a part in their story. Throughout his childhood, his mother — “the most incredible person I’ve ever met” — retold the events of their survival. Noting Henry’s attention to her tales, she designated him the family historian.

“My mother knew she had an amazing story, something special to tell the world. ‘I’m not giving it away to Steven Spielberg,’ she would say. ‘Henyk will tell it.’”

His father, on the other hand, never talked voluntarily about their ordeal, Michalski said. “He lost his entire family and focused on building a life with his wife and children. He believed in getting on with life.”

The refugee family arrived at Ellis Island in August 1949, and finding New York too difficult to navigate moved on to San Francisco the following year. Joska’s skills as a sheet metal worker served him well, and the family bought their first home in the Richmond District in 1952.

Though he loved art and studied it for a time in Paris, Henry Michalski prepared to fulfill his destiny, earning a degree in history at San Francisco State. The following year, at age 22, he started teaching 20th-century American history and U.S. government, retiring from Napa High School in 2004.

The Michalski family in the DP camp shortly before departing for the U.S. in 1949. Henry is the baby at right. (Photo/Courtesy Henry Michalski)
The Michalski family in the DP camp shortly before departing for the U.S. in 1949. Henry is the baby at right. (Photo/Courtesy Henry Michalski)

When his high schoolers were studying World War II, he would take a day to depart from the curriculum and recount the events his family lived through. As he describes it, the students would “sit in rapt attention for the entire period,” so able were they to relate to the stories of “ordinary people caught up in the conflict.”

“Mr. Michalski,” they would urge him, “you have to write this book. It sounds like a movie!”

One of the themes that emerged repeatedly in the Michalskis’ account was the persistence of a vicious and, to them, inexplicable antisemitism among the Poles, Russians and Ukrainians, not to mention the Germans. In one of the book’s most poignant chapters, a young Polish Catholic woman who for years had shared a bunk with Fela in the Siberian labor camp, and who grew as close to her as a sister, pulled away from Fela after their incredible two-week river journey to freedom when they were released from the camp. “Anja” was at that time pregnant, and gave birth aboard the raft of logs that Fela and others built with their own hands to carry them down the Ob River to the city of Omsk. But once they made camp, Fela noticed that her friend, and the other Poles, had separated from the Jews in the group. When she questioned the behavior, Michalski writes, “Anja slowly turned to look at her friend. Her eyes were vacant. Without emotion, she said, ‘Do I know you? I don’t know who you are.’”

Naturally, Fela was heartbroken. “We lived with each other, slept in the same bed, depended on our friends for our lives,” she told her brother. “But in the end, none of that matters. To them, we will always be Jews.”

After recording his first formal interview with his mother in 1976, Michalski videotaped both parents numerous times, traveled to Ellis Island and the National Archives in Washington, and conducted research in Israel at Yad Vashem. In 1977, he surprised his parents by showing up in Gostynin, which they were visiting for the first time in 30 years.

Though he never saw himself as a literary writer, he was committed to conveying the drama, the pathos and the truth of their experience, from the close calls with death to the miraculous twists of fate.

But it is also a love story, enabled by “fate, struggle, hope and divine intervention,” Michalski says. The tale of his parents’ survival, through faith and strength of character, soars above the accounts of the depravity and cruelty they suffered. Thus, when the reader comes to the end of this book, its opening quotation by Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion makes perfect sense: “A Jew who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”

“Torn Lilacs: A True WWII Story of Love, Defiance and Hope” by Henry Michalski. The book is available at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and Dayenu Judaica at the JCC of San Francisco, and on Amazon.com.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.