Seizing The Day: Remembering Adela Kalvary Owen

By Kacie Lucchini Butcher

This blog post was created to honor International Holocaust Remembrance Day — a day that marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Prison Camp. This post remembers Adela Kalvary Owen, a UW–Madison alumna and Holocaust survivor, who resisted, survived, and ultimately, seized the day. To learn more, please visit the  International Holocaust Remembrance Day website.

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The multi-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2022, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

Content Warning: The UW–Madison Public History Project blog aims to provide a space where our community can begin the difficult work of reckoning with our history. Some of the content in this blog post is disturbing. In this post, you will encounter descriptions of the Holocaust.

Greyscale headshot of Adela Kalvary.
Adela Kalvary Owen was featured multiple times in The Daily Cardinal between 1950–1951. This photo accompanied an article from July of 1950 announcing her arrival to campus. Courtesy UW Archives.

When Adela Kalvary Owen arrived at UW–Madison in 1950, she had seen and experienced more than many of her peers could imagine. She had been a freedom fighter, a slave laborer, a displaced person — all by the age of 25. But once Adela reached the Groves Housing Cooperative, in her own words, she “had come home.”[1]

Adela Kalvary Owen was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1925 — the daughter of Dorothea Machonbaum and George Paschal. Her father died when she was a baby. She was raised by her mother, and her stepfather, Stanislaw Kalvary, along with her two half siblings — Halinka and Alexander.

As a woman with Jewish roots living in Poland, by the age of just 14, Adela had been forced to fight to survive as World War II reached her country. When she was around 15 years old, her stepfather was among the Polish officers executed by the Soviets during what came to be known as the Katyn Massacre. Adela and her surviving family were forcibly moved to the Warsaw Ghetto — a horrific and brutal place. The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the German government in 1940 as a way to isolate and control Jewish residents and prepare them to be deported to concentration camps. At its height, the Warsaw Ghetto was estimated to have a population of 400,000 residents in less than 2.4% of the city’s area — an average of 7.2 persons per room.[2] Food was rationed and starvation was common. Because of the close proximity of residents, infectious diseases spread rapidly. This, on top of violence by Germans, led to the deaths of thousands of Jews per month.[3]

Movement in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto was heavily restricted. Because of this, Adela’s mother, Dorothea, could no longer run the family furniture factory that lay outside the Ghetto’s perimeter. Instead, she was offered a trade by a Polish couple. She would give up the family furniture factory in exchange for a position to run, not own, a factory inside the Ghetto that produced stoves — an essential product. The factory employed Jewish residents of the Ghetto and Dorothea worked hard to protect them from deportation. At one point, she went to German offices to beg them not to deport Jewish people laboring in the factory, arguing that the stoves were essential to the Germans. The next day, a German soldier showed up at the factory to shoot her. When he didn’t find her there, he shot a worker instead and left.

Seeds of resistance were ever present in the Warsaw Ghetto and across Poland. Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto documented the brutal conditions and the violence they suffered at the hands of government officials. As deportations to concentration camps increased, residents physically fought back. Some even risked their lives to partake in armed resistance in January of 1943. At least 7,000 Jewish people died during what is now called the Warsaw Uprising.[4] Under an assumed name, Adela joined the Polish Underground — an underground resistance movement that published newspapers and broadcast radio programs to reach non-Nazi sympathizers during the war.[5] At great risk to herself, she resisted, helping the Underground transport weapons by train.[6]

Between 1942 and 1943, German officials began increasing mass deportations. It was during one of these mass deportations that Adela’s mother and her siblings were sent to a concentration camp where they were killed.[7] Adela was “selected out” — most likely because she was able-bodied and could be used for labor during the war.

Later, Adela would escape the Warsaw Ghetto but only with the help of a German man, Paul Domeland. Adela considered him to be one of her “angels.” Domeland, a business acquaintance and friend of her mother, gave her a forged three-day pass from the Warsaw Ghetto. Using these fake papers, she was able to work outside of Warsaw as a forced laborer. Later, Domeland would take her to Germany to his family farm. Because the Domelands were elderly, they were allowed to take Adela to work for them as a forced laborer.[8]

Adela said, “My survival was due to the people who saved me and were my angels along the way. Ironically, they were all Germans. They put their lives at risk for me.”[9]

She worked for the Domelands for eight months until she was taken from them and forced to work at a munitions factory at the Domitz prison camp in Mecklenburg. Working 12 hours a day in grueling conditions, Adela still resisted. She later said “We did what we could when nobody was supervising us. The powder caps were of a certain weight. When we put more than enough in, they exploded and the caps were useless.”[10] By 1944, Adela was liberated from the Domitz prison camp by allied forces.[11]

From there, Adela spent a year in a displaced persons camp or “DP camp.” The camps became centers to recover from the horrors of the war and centralized places where families tried to find one another. But they also aimed to be social spaces. Schools were established to restart children’s education and theater troupes, musical groups, and athletic clubs were established, giving residents social opportunities long denied in the previous years.[12] While Adela was at a DP camp, she kept busy. She acted as a German-French interpreter and eventually managed 300 displaced persons, helping them adjust to life after the war.[13] In between these activities, she “read all the books available to her in order to educate herself [through] high school.”[14]

Adela undertook a “rigid self-education” program and passed the entrance exam for the University of Göttingen. She was active in the international student group on campus.[15] It was then that she decided she wanted to pursue an education in the United States. She said “it isn’t easy to get to America. I became quite discouraged and disgusted with [having to go through] about 30 medical examinations.”[16] After months of paperwork, testing, and waiting, Adela was summoned to Munich for an interview and was informed that UW–Madison students had selected her as a finalist for a scholarship. The scholarship was being offered by female students at the Groves Housing Cooperative. After being located at a displaced persons camp and surviving the war, Adela had almost nothing. A scholarship, like the one being offered by Groves, was life changing.

Under the heading of "Groves, Friendly Spirit Spurs Co-Op", a group of women of the Groves Housing Cooperative are pictures. Front row (L to R): C. Konoshima, N. Stein, E. M. Krumbach, A. Zurav, J. Braatz. Second row: N. H. Handler, L. M. Foug, M. D. Cochrane, Mr. W. Terwilliger, Mrs. A. Terwilliger, R. E. Vaughn, B. Bobo, E. Arnold, V. Sprinz. Third row: T. Cooper, M. P. Duft, C. L. Wruck, L. M. Hiller, H. Evans. Fourth row: A. Kalvary, E. McKinney, C. Smith, M. Kovenock, F. M. Bennett, B. Feigin, C. Robinson, M. A. Carey, P. Sachsenmaier, R. Grabis, P. Rosenberg..
The women of the Groves Housing Cooperative were featured annually in the Yearbooks. This page from the 1951 Badger Yearbook was Adela Kalvary Owen’s first year on campus. Adela is pictured in the upper left hand corner. Courtesy UW Archives.

Founded in 1944, the Groves Housing Cooperative was the first interracial housing cooperative at UW–Madison. The house had no racial or religious restrictions; instead, it aimed to create a diverse living environment for university women.[17] The democratic cooperative was controlled and maintained by the women who lived there, which made it affordable and community-oriented. The house was named after Economics Professor Harold Groves who backed its formation.[18] He was an ardent supporter of social justice on campus. The women at Grove’s raised $1,000 expressly to bring a displaced person from Germany to study at UW–Madison.[19] They would later select Adela.

Adela arrived at UW–Madison in the summer of 1950. She considered being a sociology major because she was “interested in people.” She took English and psychology during the summer session before choosing to study Chemistry.[20] Prior to attending UW–Madison, she had already received her B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Göttingen. Adela found Wisconsin “full of beautiful and wonderful nature,” and discussed wanting to become a U.S. citizen in a Daily Cardinal article. Almost immediately after arriving on campus, the article noted that she was “well-liked by her acquaintances because of her natural charm and sincere good humor.”[21] She graduated in 1954 with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry.

Four women sit together, smiling, looking at a book.
Adela Kalvary Owen sits amongst her new friends. Marie Davis Gadsden, center, explains where she will study on Fulbright Scholarship. They are seated alongside Carolyn Konishima (sister of boxer Akio Konoshima) who came to UW–Madison after being incarcerated with other Japanese-Americans during WWII and Clarice Wruck, a Wisconsin resident, and then-President of Groves. Courtesy UW Archives.

Adela’s daughter, Margaret Warker ‘86, a UW–Madison alumna, shared her mother’s fond memories of the Groves Housing Cooperative — “she was proud to be a part of the cooperative.” During her time at Groves, Adela found more than roommates. She found lifelong friends. Adela met Marie Davis Gadsden, who would go on to become a top administrator of education and philanthropic organizations. She would also become the first Black woman to chair the board of Oxfam America — a global organization fighting to end inequality and poverty. During her time at Groves, Adela remembered Marie as “a gracious and compassionate person of great integrity and determination.”

Beyond Adela and Marie, women like Carolyn Konoshima — who survived Japanese incarceration in the wartime United States — found a home and a community at Groves.[22] Clarice Wruck, a Wisconsin resident and member of Groves, described the cooperative — “The atmosphere here is a cosmopolitan one, and we have a chance to know well many stimulating people we ordinarily wouldn’t meet.”[23] The cooperative was so unique and successful that it was featured in the popular women’s magazine Mademoiselle in October of 1948. The article stated, “Undergraduates are questioning old stereotypes, hitting out hard against prejudice and social structures which reinforce prejudice.” It continued, “Young women representing all nationalities, races, and religions come to regard living together as a natural and mutually beneficial experience rather than as an effort to surmount a problem.”[24]

Adela said of Groves and UW–Madison “This is the first place I have learned about tolerance. I didn’t have much experience with that before. Here I learned how a group can live together without hate or prejudice and where people accept you without trying to convert you into something you are not.”[25]

After graduating from UW–Madison, Adela and her husband Clifford “Frank” Owen began a family. After raising four children, Adela pursued a graduate degree in Social Work which she attained in 1977. Adela’s youngest daughter, Margaret, described her mother as a “do-er, a changemaker.” She worked as a geriatric social worker, for low-income seniors and “put her heart into the job.”[26] After all that she had experienced, and maybe because of those experiences, Adela found a favorite saying — “carpe diem” — a Latin phrase that translates as “seize the day.”

Adela did just that. She seized opportunities. She resisted and survived the Holocaust, even in the midst of horrifying circumstances and devastating loss. At UW–Madison she gained not just a degree but a community of friends and peers. Adela married and raised children with her loving husband, and enjoyed spending time with their seven grandchildren, and getting to know some of their great-grandchildren. In addition to creating a family, Adela improved the lives of many as a geriatric social worker. And she still found time for her hobbies: reading, gardening, swimming, and restoring a 200-year-old house in Greece.[27]

Though Adela carried within her the pain and trauma of losing so many of her loved ones during the Holocaust, she was still able to create a life filled with family, friends, purpose and joy, and also enriched the lives of many. Adela was fortunate in that she spent her final years in the home of her second son and his family in Florida before passing away in 2019 at the age of 93.

Today, Adela may not be a well-known name at UW–Madison. But her presence has been felt on campus through her two daughters and her one grandson who graduated from UW–Madison and her first son who was a visiting assistant professor in the Economics department. They too found a “home” at UW–Madison. Just as Adela did that day in the summer of 1950 when she approached the doors of Groves Cooperative.

Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us.

[1] Gwyneth Roe, Feature Story, UW News Press Release, June 28, 1951, UW Archives.

[2]Warsaw,” The Holocaust Encyclopedia.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gwyneth Roe, Feature Story, UW News Press Release, June 28, 1951, UW Archives.

[6]Members Corner: An Incredible Life: Adela Kalvary Owen,” The 1818 Society Quarterly, Fall 2019, Volume 2, Issue 3.

[7]Members Corner: An Incredible Life: Adela Kalvary Owen,” The 1818 Society Quarterly, Fall 2019, Volume 2, Issue 3.

[8] Members Corner.

[9] Members Corner.

[10] Gwyneth Roe, “Polish Born Adela Kalvary Finds Group,” The Daily Cardinal, July 3, 1951, UW Archives.

[11] Judith Rothstein, “Adela Kalvary Relates Double Liberation,” The Daily Cardinal, July 13, 1950, UW Archives.

[12]Displaced Person,” The Holocaust Encyclopedia.

[13] Rothstein.

[14] Rothstein.

[15] Rothstein.

[16] Rothstein.

[17] The University of Wisconsin News Service, Press Release, November 15, 1951.

[18] The University of Wisconsin News Service, Press Release, November 15, 1951.

[19] Gwyneth Roe, “Polish Born Adela Kalvary Finds Group,” The Daily Cardinal, July 3, 1951, UW Archives.

[20] Rothstein.

[21] Rothstein.

[22] Roe, The Daily Cardinal.

[23] Roe, The Daily Cardinal.

[24] “Campus Correspondence — U.S. Life through Foreign Eyes,” Mademoiselle Magazine, October 1948.

[25] Roe, The Daily Cardinal.

[26] Members Corner.

[27] Members Corner.