Golden Gate Express | Gator Talk: “Torn Lilacs”, completing a chapter

Welcome to Gator Talk, the Xpress podcast that brings city perspectives to local, regional and national news.

Henry Michalski is a Kazakhstan-born San Francisco resident with a rich history in the Bay Area. His parents, Joska and Fela Michalski, survived one of the darkest periods in world history, the Holocaust. Michalski learned what his family went through and wrote his story in a book titled:Torn Lilacs: A True WWII Story of Love, Defiance and Hope”, self-published October 2020.

Check out the story here at Gator Talk.

Introduction :

Isabelle: Hello alligators! Meet Isabella Vines, Diversity Editor of Golden Gate Xpress. Welcome to another Gator Talk, the podcast that never leaves you out of the loop.

Joining me today is Matthew Cardoza, Xpress Copy Editor, with today’s guest.

Matthieu: Hello everyone, delighted to be here today.

Isabella: For more news and coverage, check out OR @GGXnews on all social media platforms.

Preview of the show:

Isabella: Today’s Story focuses on SF State alumnus Henry Michalski and his novel”ripped lilacs.“This novel covers the experiences of World War II as well as perseverance and devotion to loved ones.

So let’s go.

Main story:

Isabella: So Matthew, how was it to meet Michalski?

Matthew: He was really interesting. He spoke about his Jewish heritage as well as his parents’ experiences with World War II and the Holocaust.

Isabella: Wow, where exactly is he from?

Matthew: Henry Michalski was born in the nation of Kazakhstan, coming to America when he was just five years old. His family boarded the warship “General Muir” turned into an immigrant transport to New York.

[interview audio begins]

“The Statue of Liberty of course. You know like everyone else; The whole ship went out and everyone was crying. Oh my God. Even now I want to cry. It was a dream to come to America.

[interview audio ends]

Isabella: It sounds like an amazing experience.

Matthew: It was extremely sincere, especially since they had to leave their hometown of Gostynin, Poland.

Isabella: Really? Why did they leave exactly?

Matthew: Well, they were separated. His father Joska was forced to fight for the Polish Army while his mother Fela and brother Kubala left their hometown to escape the Nazis as they forcefully occupied the region.

Isabella: That sounds scary.

Matthew: It really hampered their ability to trust other people. Especially for Fela, who in Siberia met a woman named Anya who betrayed her trust.

[interview audio begins]

She’s a girl who was like a sister in Siberia, they slept in the same bed, they helped each other. They were as close as sisters. And after the raft and they were free in Kazakhstan, what happened was that the Poles went with the poles, and the Jews were separated. She walks up to Anya and says, “Anya, why are you breaking up?” And Anya totally ignores him like she doesn’t know. And she says, “Anya, did you hear me what’s wrong?” And at the end of the day, you’re just a Jew. In the camp, when you needed each other, you needed each other, you know that. But once they were free, you’re a Jew, I have nothing to do with you. It is a reality that has really hit home. Even when she was telling me the story. 40 years later, she was crying that this had happened to her.

[interview audio ends]

Isabelle: It’s heartbreaking.

Matthew: I know. Even years after it all happened, her mother still suffered from PTSD.

[interview audio begins]

You know, my mother was very nervous. At that time, we called him “nervous”. When she died, the doctor said she had PTSD, but they didn’t have that word. As in the First World War, they called it shellshock. But yes, she was nervous. She was still screaming. And then I left the house to go away. You know, I was out until it got dark. I remember once I was hit in the face with a soccer ball, I couldn’t even see it. It was dark. I didn’t want to come into the house. Because she was nervous.

[interview audio ends]

Matthew: And his family’s story is one of the many experiences of the Holocaust.

Isabella: And that being said, we’re going to take a little break.

To break

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Continued Main Story:

Isabelle: And we are back. So what is the connection between the title “Torn Lilacs” and the story?

Matthew: He said the title represents his parents’ love that lasted throughout the war as well as their experiences trying to find each other.

[interview audio begins]

Torn is kind of an aggressive turn, isn’t it? And lilacs are delicate flowers. They were like flowers. They have been uprooted, uprooted from their community, from their life and from their village, uprooted aggressively and tossed to the wind like delicate flowers; torn lilacs. After all, we are all torn lilacs. So it seems to work.

[interview audio ends]

Isabella: That title really works for the book. What was the process like for him to write about what his parents went through?

Matthew: The process took many years as he struggled to make sure he got his parents’ accounts of what happened correctly.

[interview audio begins]

My mother, I must tell you, was a real freak of facts. She didn’t like exaggerations or lies, she just said to say exactly what it was. Don’t overdo it, don’t embellish it, none of that. Tell the story. And when she read it, she said no, no, no. And I went back many times because some of those stories were just amazing. So I would come back and maybe ask him another way. And I would come back and say tell me more about that and expand on that a bit. And as far as I can see, it’s all pretty, pretty accurate. She had an excellent memory. I mean, when you go through that kind of trauma, you tend to remember it.

[interview audio ends]

Isabella: So her mother was very specific when it came to telling her story.

Matthew: Michalski said she really wanted the world to hear about the pain she went through so others wouldn’t go through it. So she chose Henry to tell her story rather than Steven Speilberg himself.

[interview audio begins]

She was contacted by the Steven Spielberg Foundation because he collects stories about the show he does. She said I wasn’t going to make Steven Spielberg rich with my pain.

[interview audio ends]

Isabella: He was quite a character.

Matthew: Yes, and she was actually the one who encouraged them to come to San Francisco…

[interview audio begins]

My mother said, look, we survived Siberia. We survived the Nazis. We’re leaving New York. We are going to California. It never rains in California. The weather is nice and sunny. That’s what she said. It’s sunny and sunny in California. It never rains. So they bought a train ticket, it took us three days. We came here from San Francisco.

[interview audio ends]

Brief news:

Isabella: Here are some things that happened this week.

The Don Nasser Family Plaza swimming pool closed unexpectedly Wednesday. After the Mashouf Wellness Center closed its swimming pool in May “due to repairs”, all swimming operations were carried out in the gymnasium’s former pool. There is currently no date set for its reopening.

More … than 1,000 people spoke on the Golden Gate Bridge Sunday for Mahsa Amini. Amini died three days after being arrested by vice police for wearing her hijab loosely. Protestors gathered in her name and in support of Iranian women fighting for freedom.

Hurricane Ian caused immense damage in Florida after hitting the southwest coast as a Category 4 storm, the second strongest category possible. Winds from the hurricane decreased overnight and were downgraded to a tropical storm by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Storm surges are feared, but residents who survived continue to repair the damage.


Isabelle: And that’s all for today. Meet Isabella Vines, Diversity Editor.

Matthew: And Matthew Cardoza, editor.

New episodes will air every two weeks, so stay tuned.

Isabella: And with that, see you alligators later.

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