By Jonathan Farrell
After World War II, the Sunset and Richmond districts grew like never before, due in large part to the wave of G.I.s returning home eager to raise a family and build a new future. Yet, in that wave was perhaps an even more determined group. They were known as the Displaced Persons (DPs).
In his new book, “Torn Lilacs,” Richmond District resident Henry Michalski tells the horrific and yet remarkable story of his parents, who were among the millions of people “displaced” by WWII.
Michalski lives on 45th Avenue in the house he and his siblings grew up in.
His parents, Fela and Joska (or Felicia and Joe) Michalski, provided a very stable home, something Henry and his siblings are very proud of and grateful for.
“I was 5 when we settled in San Francisco in 1950. My assimilation was easy,” he said.
He then described what the neighborhood was like back then.
“With Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach practically in the back yard, it was a good place to raise a family,” Michalski said.
He and his siblings attended local schools, would see Saturday matinee movies at the Alexandria Theatre on Geary Boulevard and enjoyed life in a thriving neighborhood..
Michaelski graduated from George Washington High School in the early 1960s.
“My parents were thrilled and honored to be here and they loved America,” he added.
Yet, at holiday time and on other occasions when families would gather, Henry noticed something different.
“Why didn’t I and my brothers have grandparents?” he wondered. “Or aunts, uncles and relatives to play with?”
The lack of relatives, and the fact that he was born in Kazakhstan – a place far removed from San Francisco and the family-friendly neighborhood of the Richmond District – stirred in his mind.
“Over time, I acquired many pieces of my parents’ story,” he said. “They were unbelievable accounts of deprivation and heroism, fantastic events. Yet they all seemed jumbled and disconnected. Early on, my mother designated me the family historian.”
Beginning his career as a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School, Henry would eventually leave the City to teach in Napa.
It was while he was teaching high school there that he recounted his parents’ story about their experience escaping the Nazi occupation that captured their little home town of Gostynin in central Poland, about 80 miles west of Warsaw.
“The students in every history class I taught each semester, when I presented this, it had an impact,” Michalski said. “‘This is an important story. You should write a book,’ students would tell me. So, I knew it had to be written.”
So, on a beautiful spring day in San Francisco in 1976, Michalski visited his parents home with a tape recorder in hand, a note book full of questions, and his friend Harris Nussbaum as a witness.
It took more than 40 years to research and to pull together all the jumbled bits and pieces of this very personal and complex life story.
Since the end of WWII, there have been many books written and movies made about the plight of the millions of people left stranded as “displaced people.”
“The violence of war did not end with the signing of ceasefires, truces or peace treaties,” historian David Nasaw points out in his recent book, “The Last Million.”
The war’s cruelty continued, especially for the DPs who were the most vulnerable. Yet among all of the DPs of Europe, the Jewish people suffered the most.
“Nobody wanted the Jews,” Michalski said.
Because his parents were from Eastern Europe, they were viewed as Communist sympathizers, or at least under the influence and prone to such.
Where could they go? Gostynin their hometown was destroyed. What little that was left was taken over by squatters who did not want the Jews to return. Violence against them was common.
There was the possibility of going to Palestine and being part of the forming of a new Israel. But that too was fraught with dangers as the Arab leaders opposed it.
Michalski’s parents, Joska and Fela, knew instinctively that America was the place to go. After a grueling subsistence in Siberia and both of them almost dying not once but twice, America was their new hope.
When the movie “Schindler’s List” debuted, Michalski noted what his mother Fela had said to him.
“You gonna write my story. No one will believe what we went through,” she said. “But the world has to know. I’m not giving Stephen Spielberg my story. I didn’t suffer to make him rich. You’re going to tell the story. I will give you all the information.”
Since its release in 2020, the book has been receiving rave reviews, – four and five stars on both GoodReads and Amazon.
“We will be stocking it in our memoir section,” said Kevin Ryan of Green Apple Books on Clement Street. It is vailable in both print and electronic format.
For more information, visit: www.greenapplebooks.com or call (415) 387-2272.