Henry Michalski wears a lilac-colored shirt as he recalls the process involved with writing his book “Torn Lilacs,” on Sept. 30, 2022. Michalski says he can’t believe his book, which follows his family as they escape the Holocaust and Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, is being taught in schools. “But sadly it’s still incredibly relevant today,” Michalski said. (Joshua Carter / Golden Gate Xpress) (Joshua Carter)
Henry Michalski wears a lilac-colored shirt as he recalls the process involved with writing his book “Torn Lilacs,” on Sept. 30, 2022. Michalski says he can’t believe his book, which follows his family as they escape the Holocaust and Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, is being taught in schools. “But sadly it’s still incredibly relevant today,” Michalski said. (Joshua Carter / Golden Gate Xpress)

Joshua Carter

Gator Talk: “Torn Lilacs,” completing a chapter

October 1, 2022

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

Henry Michalski is a San Francisco resident born in Kazakhstan 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 about what his family went through and wrote their story in a book titled: “Torn Lilacs: A True WWII Story of Love, Defiance and Hope,” self-published in October 2020. 

Check out the story here on Gator Talk.


Isabella: Hi Gators! This is Isabella Vines, diversity editor of Golden Gate Xpress. Welcome back to another Gator Talk, the podcast that never leaves you out of the loop.  

With me today is Matthew Cardoza, Xpress copy editor along with today’s guest.

Matthew: Hello everyone, glad to be here today.

Isabella: For more information and coverage, check out goldengatexpress.org 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 “Torn Lilacs.” This novel covers experiences involved with WWII as well as the perseverance and devotion to loved ones. 

So let’s get into it.

Main story:

Isabella: So Matthew, what was it like meeting with Michalski? 

Matthew: He was really interesting. He talked about his Jewish heritage as well as his parents’ experiences with WWII 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 only five years old. His family rode on the “General Muir” warship turned immigrant transport to New York City.

[interview audio begins] 

“The Statue of Liberty of course. You know like everybody; The whole ship came out and everyone was crying. Oh my God. Even now I feel like crying. That was a dream to come to America.” 

[interview audio ends]   

Isabella: That sounds like an amazing experience. 

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

Isabella: Really? Why exactly did they leave? 

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

Isabella: That sounds frightening.

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

[interview audio begins]

This is a girl who was like a sister in Siberia, they slept in the same bed, they helped each other. They were as closer than sisters. And after the raft and they were free in Kazakhstan, what happened is the Polish went with the poles, and the Jews were separated. She goes up to Anya and says, “Anya, what’s why you are separating?” And Anya totally ignores her like she didn’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. That’s a reality that really hit. Even when she was telling me the story. 40 years later, she was crying that that happened to her.

[interview audio ends]   

Isabella: That’s heartbreaking.

Matthew: I know. Even years after everything happened, his mother still experienced PTSD.

[interview audio begins] 

You know, my mother was very nervous. In those days, we called it “nervous.” When she died, the doctor said she was suffering from PTSD, but they didn’t have that word. Like in World War I, they called it shellshock. But yeah, she was nervous. She was always screaming. And then I used to leave the house to go away. You know, I was outside until it got dark. I remember once I got hit in the face with a football I couldn’t even see it. It was dark. I didn’t want to go in the house. Because she was nervous.

[interview audio ends]   

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

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


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Cont. Main Story:

Isabella: And we’re back. So, how does the title “Torn Lilacs” connect with the story? 

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

[interview audio begins] 

Torn is kind of an aggressive turn, right? And lilacs are delicate flowers. They were like flowers. They were torn, uprooted from their community, from their life and their village, uprooted aggressively and thrown like delicate flowers to the wind; torn lilacs. After all, we’re 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 to complete, as he strived to make sure he got his parent’s accounts of what happened correctly.

[interview audio begins]

My mother, I have to let you know, was a real stickler for facts. She did not like exaggerations or lies, she just said just tell exactly what it was. Don’t exaggerate, don’t embellish, 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 these stories were just unbelievable. So I would go back and ask him maybe a different way. And I’d come back and say tell me more about this and develop this a little bit. And as far as I can see, this is all pretty, pretty accurate. She had a great memory. I mean, when you go through this kind of trauma, you tend to remember this.

[interview audio ends]

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

Matthew: Michalski said that she very much wanted the world to hear about the suffering she went through so that others wouldn’t go through it. So she picked Henry to tell her story over Steven Speilberg himself. 

[interview audio begins]

She was contacted by the Steven Spielberg Foundation because he’s collecting stories on the show he’s doing. She said I’m not going to make Steven Spielberg rich off of my suffering.

[interview audio ends]

Isabella: She was quite a character.

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

[interview audio begins] 

My mother said, look, we survived Siberia. We survived the Nazis. We’re getting the hell out of New York. We’re going to California. It never rains in California. It’s nice and sunny. That’s what she said. It’s nice and sunny in California. It never rains. So they bought a ticket on the train, took us three days. We came out here to San Francisco.

[interview audio ends] 

News Brief:

Isabella: Here are some things that happened this week.

The pool at Don Nasser Family Plaza unexpectedly closed on Wednesday. After the Mashouf Wellness Center closed its pool in May “due to repairs,” all swimming operations have been conducted in the old gymnasium pool. There is currently no set date for its re-opening. 

More than 1,000 people spoke out on the Golden Gate Bridge Sunday for Mahsa Amini. Amini died three days after being stopped by morality police for wearing her hijab loosely. Protesters gathered in her name and to support Iranian women fighting for freedom. 

Hurricane Ian caused immense damage in Florida after hitting the southwestern coast as a Category 4 storm, the second-strongest possible category. The hurricane’s winds lessened overnight and was downgraded to a tropical storm by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. There are concerns of storm surges, but residents who have survived are continuing to rebuild the damage.


Isabella: And that’s all for today. This is Isabella Vines, diversity editor.

Matthew: And Matthew Cardoza, copy editor. 

New episodes will premiere every other week, so keep an ear out. 

Isabella: And with that, see you later gators.

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About the Contributors
Photo of Isabella Vines
Isabella Vines, Diversity Editor
Isabella Vines (she/her) is the diversity editor for Golden Gate Xpress. She's a senior at SF State, majoring in communications and journalism with a minor in race and resistance studies. Isabella is from and resides in the Bay Area. During her free time, she likes to travel, read and spend time with loved ones.
Photo of Matthew Cardoza
Matthew Cardoza, Copy Editor
Matthew Cardoza (he/him) is the copy editor for Golden Gate Xpress. He is majoring in journalism and minoring in political science. He was born and raised in San Francisco, and still lives in the city. He was previously a part of The Guardsman, the campus newspaper of City College of San Francisco. Matthew likes to write about politics, culture and interesting events on and off campus. In his free time, he likes to drive around San Francisco, rock climb, play video games and hike in the wilderness.
Photo of Joshua Carter
Joshua Carter, Editor-in-Chief
Joshua Carter (he/him) is the editor-in-chief for Golden Gate Xpress. He transferred from CCSF as a creative writing major but quickly switched to photojournalism with a minor in geography once he landed at SF State. Joshua spent six years in the Navy, served as photo and nonfiction editor at Forum literary magazine, interned as an editorial intern at Alternative Press, and is striving to be a groundbreaking filmmaker and multimedia journalist. In his free time he listens to audiobooks, falls into wiki holes for hours, and performs with his punk band.

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