Now you know my story,” Lily Fenster told a packed room at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills in May. She took a comedic beat before she continued, “Thank you all for making me so famous.”
The crowd – which came close to 300 people – laughed as Fenster smiled. The evening’s event was for guests to meet the three woman portrayed in the graphic memoir “Flying Couch,” done by Fenster’s granddaughter, Amy Kurzweil. Flying Couch discusses the lives of Fenster and Kurzweil, as well as Kurzweil’s mother, Sonya.
When Kurzweil first approached Fenster about the memoir, Fenster didn’t think she had much of a story to tell. Anyone who has read the memoir, or talked to Fenster, would disagree.
“I lived through a lot,” said the 92-year-old a few days later on the couch in her Birmingham home.
In 1926, Fenster was born in Warsaw, Poland, where she lived with her four sisters, parents, and grandma. She lived through bombings, including one where she got shrapnel in her hip while trying to protect her grandma. She was in the hospital for a month because they didn’t take care of Jewish people. But she survived.
Then, after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, she and her family ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Fenster eventually escaped, disguised as a Catholic orphan. She was only 13.
“Why did I run from the ghetto?,” she said. “I lost my baby sister. The day she died, my whole world died. I didn’t want to be Jewish anymore. I didn’t know what to do anymore. I just went, and I didn’t care if I lived or died.”
Fenster got to a smaller town but not before getting typhoid fever. She survived that too. In total, she walked about 100 kilometers, which is about
63 miles. Fenster worked on farms, where she helped with cows, pigs, and horses, hiding among gentiles.
While at one farm she made bread. One day, a man Fenster knew was Jewish came and she stole a piece of bread for him, telling him to run so the Nazis wouldn’t get him. That same man – who she ran into after the war had ended – would one day introduce Fenster to her husband, Dave, who she was married to for 45 years before he passed away from Lou Gehrig disease.
They only knew each other for six weeks before they got married.
“There wasn’t time for romance,” she laughed.
Dave and Lily, along with their daughter Sonya, eventually made their way to America in 1951.
When Dave had to list an occupation he put mechanic, which is how they ended up in Michigan. The family lived in Bloomfield Hills for 35 years. Fenster has been in Birmingham for the last 10.
Now, all those years later, she’s gotten to watch her kids and grandkids and great-grandkids grow up in America, a land she truly loves.
“Blessed the date when I came to America,” she said. “That is my country.
“I would never believe it...that there would be great-grandkids, get married, have a husband, be a complete woman,” Fenster continued.
Or that so many people would find her story so fascinating.
“So you find it interesting?” she asked.
After I nodded, she took a big sigh, and said, “Thank you, honey.” Then she asked if her hair looked OK – she did have a photo shoot to get ready for.
Photo: Laurie Tennent