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When I was 25 and about to meet the man I would spend my life with, I imagined happily-ever-after with hippie trimmings: a rock 'n' roll romance, a barefoot wedding, babies with names like Sky and Savannah. Was I in for a surprise! Whatever our dreams of love, life finds a way of shattering them to make room in our hearts for something larger.

In my case, literally larger.

The friend who took me to Jacques Sandulescu's apartment warned me that I was about to meet a giant. The man I looked up at was like a character from a fairy tale—the scary but secretly kind ogre, perhaps. At 6 foot 3 he was a foot taller than I and weighed twice as much. He was also 18 years older. He had a rich, unplaceable accent and a boxer's small head with a snub nose and high Slavic cheekbones. His ring name as a pro heavyweight had been the Babyface Killer. Since then, he had owned two flamenco coffeehouses and a jazz bar called Jacques in Greenwich Village, running them with an easy authority. I would learn later that his ancestors—landowners, magistrates, military commanders—had run their little corner of Transylvania (the mountainous heart of Romania) for, oh, about 800 years.

To my absolute terror, almost as soon as I walked in the door, this force of nature fixed me with a look that said "You're the one." Me? There had to be some mistake. At 25 I was drab on the outside—hidden behind shapeless clothes, glasses, extra pounds—and tied in knots on the inside, picking at them in therapy. I wasn't so much attracted to him as I was overwhelmed. And yet I saw him cradle a kitten in his huge hands, hinting at a nurturing streak I hungered for. We had a love of books in common—his place was full of them. In fact, he'd had a book of his own published. As I left, he thrust it into my hands. It was titled Donbas. What's that? I thought. I soon learned that it was a place—both on earth and in Jacques's psyche. There was already no turning back from the journey that would take me there.

"I was arrested in Brasov on my way to school," Jacques's autobiography began. He had been 16 years old when the Soviet Red Army invaded Romania late in World War II. In January 1945 they rounded up some 9,000 people and shipped them in cattle cars to the Donets River Basin (Donbas) coalfields of Ukraine, a three-week trip; once there they would build their own slave labor camps in the snow. The Soviets, unlike the Nazis, weren't out to kill their captives—only those who attempted escape got a bullet in the neck—but they were perfectly willing to work and starve them to death. Despite the kindness of some Russian civilians who sneaked food to prisoners, thousands died. Even before Jacques started mining coal, his hands were hardened from digging graves in frozen ground.

Jacques was strong enough to do singlehandedly a job that normally took two well-fed Russians: riding a three-ton iron car to the top of a rickety tower and tipping it over to dump its load of slag, the stony black waste from the mine. His captors gave him the Russian nickname Vanya, along with extra rations, and even offered him the chance to marry a Russian girl and become a Soviet citizen. Longing for home and freedom, he dared to refuse, a defiance that banished him underground, to the most dangerous part of the mine. Weakened by hunger, his massive frame down to 120 pounds, he was buried alive in a cave-in. His best friend and fellow prisoner Omar dug him out, but his mangled legs became gangrenous. Threatened with amputation, Jacques escaped—into the searing subzero cold of a Russian winter. As badly as he needed his parents, he made the wrenching decision not to head home, where the Soviets now ruled, but to try to reach the Americans occupying western Germany.