After the death of Joanie Holzer Schirm’s parents in 2000, she found hundreds of letters, held together by rusted paperclips and stamped with censor marks, sent from Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, China, and South and North America, along with journals, vintage film, taped interviews, and photographs. In working through these various materials documenting the life of her father, Oswald “Valdik” Holzer, she learned of her family history through his remarkable experiences of exile and loss, resilience and hope. In this posthumous memoir, Schirm elegantly re-creates her father’s youthful voice as he comes of age as a Jew in interwar Prague, escapes from a Nazi-held army unit, practices medicine in China’s war-ravaged interior, and settles in the United States to start a family. Introducing us to a diverse cast of characters ranging from the humorous to the menacing, Holzer’s life story is an inspirational account of survival during wartime, a cinematic epic spanning multiple continents, and ultimately a tale with a twist—a book that will move readers for generations to come.
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About the Author
Joanie Holzer Schirm was the founding president of Geotechnical and Environmental Consultants, Inc., in Orlando, Florida, which she directed for seventeen years. She is now a full-time writer, speaker, and curator of the Holzer Collection, her father’s World War II legacy. Schirm is the author of Adventurers Against Their Will: Extraordinary World War II Stories of Survival, Escape, and Connection—Unlike Any Others, winner of the Global Ebook Award for best biography.
Read an Excerpt
A Gifted Life
What makes a life? It's not a series of events but memories embedded with emotion transformed into stories told around tables. And so I, Valdik Holzer, must decide, from my seven decades, what stories am I going to tell? If I'm fortunate, a few will enlighten and leave a worthwhile echo behind.
It's difficult to know where to begin. My migration early in life across five continents was filled with daring adventure and the pursuit of love and acceptance. I was hunted and displaced. I encountered shady characters, experienced tremendous peril, frustration, and guilt, while I faced painful choices. Sometimes there were no "best" alternatives. I learned that an action sometimes can cause a consequence greater than inaction. I suffered my darkest days as a refugee, but I encountered compassion and courage as well. I did not sour on life or abandon my humor. I didn't allow the world to write my story. I became the author of my life.
Wherever I've traveled, no matter what language I've spoken or clothing I've worn, I've led a gifted life. "Gifted" because my time on Earth was not supposed to be long and fulfilled. According to Hitler's psychotic plan, I — Valdik Holzer — was meant to be terminated in 1942 by gas, starvation, beating, or gunshot.
It should have ended in that way, that year, at the hands of the Nazis, as it did for forty-four of my relatives, but instead, at twenty-seven, I embarked on a trek that covered much of the world — Europe, Africa, Asia, North America, and South America. Because I dared to break from the past and brave the dangers and loneliness in a strange land, I survived to now share my Homeric tale. My memories are embedded with the emotion of every wrong move and miscalculation that, when recalled, sting anew. After all these years I still can't answer if my survival was because of fate, chance, or something higher. You get to decide.
As an old man looking at my diminishing future, my greatest wish is to finish well. I can achieve this and help humanity at the same time by sharing the last letter my father wrote to me before he perished. In this 1942 letter he made a timeless, universal wish that ties us together as humankind. I've done my best to follow his advice.
But first I need you to comprehend the historical context in which his request was made. We're all products of our histories, events layered one upon another, with the present carrying the past within it. So, to paint the picture of the genesis of my father's wish, I should start my tale where it all began — with my Bohemian roots and my grand entrance into my gifted life.CHAPTER 2
My delivery on July 23, 1911, as the only child of Arnot and Olga (née Orlík) Holzer, took place in the town of Beneov in a corner room on the second floor of the three-story townhouse my parents shared with my grandmother, Marie Holzer. With over two centuries of solid Bohemian background, my grandfather Alois Holzer, who'd bought the entire city block, had built the Holzer house and store in 1897. It faced the little town square on the northeast corner, with Butcher Alley running along the north side to the main square.
Until his death some seven years before my birth, Alois operated a wholesale high-end grocery business (in Czech, a "koloniální zbozí") on the first floor, importing dry goods from the European colonies. Tea arrived from Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka, and coffee, sugar, and exotic spices from Africa. In our small town Alois also sold chocolates. At his death my paternal grandfather, Alois Holzer, left his grocery store to my father, his oldest son, and his name to me — Osvald Alois Holzer. My Czech first name, English spelling Oswald, derived from a cousin my father admired. Thus, following the Czech tradition, I became known by the diminutive nickname "Valdik."
My maternal grandparents, Jakub and Teresia Orlík, had lived in a large house near Alois and Marie. Grandfather Jakub was a horse trader, importing animals from Hungary, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. He supplied fine steeds for the wealthy, including nearby nobility like Archduke Franz Ferdinand d'Este.
Grandfather Jakub arranged my parents' marriage, and as things turned out, he was a superb matchmaker. Olga was the youngest of his six children, which included four daughters. Short, with an hourglass figure, Mother had an artistic temperament with a broad range of emotions. At the same time, she was gentle, kind, and generous. Her round face with the warm glow of green eyes and heart-shaped lips were set off by her flawless peaches-and-cream complexion. She had flowing glossy brown hair that my father loved to move his hands through and leave tousled. It wasn't long after their 1908 wedding that my mom became pregnant. Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage, which, as my father told it, made my arrival two years later "even more celebratory."
When I was old enough to hear it, one night when we sat down for a dinner of roast pork, steamed and sliced dumplings, and red cabbage, Dad described how our diet interacted with my birthright: "You had the good fortune to be born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family that owned a grocery store in a town that has seen its share of luck along with the misery of conflict. That we aren't Orthodox is a benefit so you can eat a lot of tasty pork."
We all share a past that provides the forces that affect our lives.
Located twenty-five miles southeast of Prague, the first official mention of Beneov was in the eleventh century, when it was owned by the lords of Beneschau. As it still is, the cultivated countryside surrounding Beneov is typical of Central Bohemia — a mosaic of lush forests, flower-filled meadows, farms, and small, mostly man-made ponds filled with carp — a misleading picture of tranquility. From its start Beneov endured repeated invasions and turmoil.
"This makes us who we are," my dad — tata in Czech — would say. "But don't forget — Bohemia is not just the charming countryside. It's a living backcloth to our ancestor's emotions that create the topography of your heart. If you study the social dynamics of time and place, my son, you will learn how the world works. You'll foresee what is coming."
Even though for me that last sentence hasn't always held right, I've followed my father's reason as to why everyone should be a student of history: "If you know what went before, you will come to understand the present with a knowing mind and heart."
With no guile or hidden motives, Dad's heart was the purest of anyone I knew.
The closest Bohemia came to realizing a prophecy of national unity was in the fourteenth century. Charles IV, a fellow as skilled at making allies as he was at vanquishing enemies, was crowned king of Bohemia in 1346. As emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he united the Czechs and Germans and made Prague the capital and a seat of culture and education. The first major university in Central Europe still bears Charles's name; it is my alma mater. He hired Italian and French architects to build palaces and churches and ordered the construction of a bridge across the Vltava River, which was named in his honor.
I wish I could say the spirit of King Charles lived on and that unity and prosperity continued for generations. During the Thirty Years' War (1618–48) Beneov was plundered and endured more disastrous fires. Even the Swedish army torched half our town as it traveled on the famous trade route from Linz, Germany, to Prague. The best-known occupiers established the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which over time encompassed Austrian Germans, the Magyars of Hungary, Slovenes, Slovaks, Romanians, Poles, Ruthenians, Serbs, Croats, and my people, the Czechs. Nothing much held us together except the constantly changing lines drawn on a map. "It took compromise," my dad would say when describing the mess.
The earliest documentation of Jews living in the area was in 1570 — five people were registered as the heads of Jewish families. By 1893, living in twenty-seven surrounding villages, the Jewish community was officially recorded at around eight hundred. My father, born in 1885, and my mom, in 1888, would have appeared on the registers, although neither came from religious families.
As was true throughout Europe, restrictions were often placed on Jews, including how they could earn a living, whether they could marry, where Jews could live, and with whom they could associate. On occasion they were thrown out of their homes and villages altogether.
The Czech Lands became overwhelmingly non-Catholic from the fifteenth-century influence of Jan Hus, the great Reformist leader who, one hundred years before Germany's Luther, challenged how the Catholic faith operated. The Protestants prevailed at first until the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs came to power in the sixteenth century.
This is where the story gets personal and, as my father reflected, "made you who you are." Determined to convert the Czechs by force, in 1620 the Habsburgs under the Holy Roman Imperial forces of Ferdinand II and Catholic League German troops defeated the mostly Protestant Bohemian army at the Battle of White Mountain.
The immediate consequence of the defeat was the plunder of the Bohemian crown properties and a significant forfeiture of lives. The Orlíks, my mother's family, were on the losing side. The Hapsburgs declared non-Catholic worship and book ownership "heretical," and people were severely punished. As a member of some degree of low-level Bohemian nobility, the Protestant Orlíks were given an ultimatum to convert to Catholicism or emigrate — leave their ancestral land.
Rubbing a hand against his heart, Dad described their choice, according to family legend: "Exhibiting a shrewd but stubborn streak that would be passed down to their descendants, including your mother and you, the Orlíks refused both choices and instead selected a third option — converting to the Jewish faith. Jews at the time were minor players in the Catholics versus Protestants scene. Therefore this seemed a safer choice."
The Orlíks lost their supposed castle, but the conversion allowed them to stay in the Bohemian land they loved. Thousands of other leading Protestant families were exiled, their property confiscated and given to those who helped the Habsburgs in their conquest and push for re-Catholicization of Bohemia. The White Mountain defeat began three hundred years of Catholic-driven persecution of the mostly Protestant population. For the small enclave of Jews, some new, some old, scattered throughout the lands, let's say they had their ups and big downs in how they were treated.
My paternal family side also may have found its identity shaped by religion and politics. As the legend goes, sometime around the mid-1760s, during Empress Maria Theresa's reign over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a freeman named Vrecky lived in a little Bohemian village. The Czech word Vrek means "the top of something," like a hill. Freemen, who ranked above serfs but below nobles in the feudal system, knew it was smart politics to adopt a German-sounding name as a show of loyalty to the empress.
This was during a period when Maria Theresa was "Germanizing," seeking to transform her empire by unifying laws, ideologies, and language. It was a time when most Ashkenazic Jews from Central and Eastern Europe didn't have hereditary family surnames, except in a few rare places in Europe. One of those exceptions was Prague, the capital of Bohemia, where it was documented during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries that Jews regularly used surnames.
So, Vrecky went looking for a German bride and found a woman named Holzer. She happened to be Jewish, and he took her surname. In a romantic ending to his often-told tale, Dad would add, "I'm sure it was true love."
That was how my father's family "happened" to be Jewish, at least according to family lore. I'm not sure of all the facts or the exact dates, but there is an old Italian phrase that here serves my storytelling well: Even if it isn't true, it is well made.
In the early 1800s Beneov developed as a center of national rebirth for Czech-speaking Bohemians. It grew alongside the resistance movement to the predominance of the German language and other cultural aspects of the Habsburg rule, which lasted unhappily for three hundred years. When the town was connected by rail in 1871, many people with business in Prague lived in this hamlet.
The whole place was developed around the Beneov Royal Estate and the Castle Konopite, a French-type Gothic castle that was home to a variety of nobles since the Habsburgs took over. The castle's occupant at the time of my birth was the second most prestigious Habsburg of all — Archduke Franz Ferdinand d'Este — the heir apparent to Emperor Franz Josef. That Franz Ferdinand would become the emperor was a big deal for Beneov.
When I was a boy, automobiles were new and uncommon in Central Europe. Our neighbor Franz Ferdinand had the first car in town. My father bought the second car, and occasionally in the summer we would pass the archduke on the dusty roads. That was his one connection to our family until the archduke took off in his car for an official visit to far-off Bosnia.CHAPTER 3
A World at War
I was three years old when our noble neighbor and his wife were assassinated by a young Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, while riding through Bosnia, Sarajevo. It was the match strike that helped spark World War I and guaranteed Beneov at least a short line in the history books. Although a defining moment of the twentieth century, of more importance to me, my father was called into service in 1914 into the Austro-Hungarian army as a second lieutenant in an all-Czech Bohemian infantry regiment, #102, stationed in our garrison town of Beneov. Until his untimely demise, Franz Ferdinand served as regiment commander.
Before the war the Realist Party took root in this fertile ground for disaffection caused by a constant flow of threats, broken promises, persecution, and nationalistic ferment. At the time intellectuals across Europe questioned the old monarchical order and advocated the development of popular nationalism. Some men in Beneov were active in the Realist Party, a group of increasingly nationalist liberals who tried to overthrow Austrian rule or at least push for significant political change in the monarchy. My father was among them. The party leader was a Prague University professor, Tomá Garrigue Masaryk, who considered anti-Semitism a blight upon society.
When the war broke out, my father had no more choice about serving in the Austro-Hungarian army than he had about living under its government. There was no love lost between the Czechs and the German Austrians, who were allied with their German cousins. Our Slavic soulful identity set us apart from the German subjects of the empire. The Austro-Hungarian army's high command got nervous about keeping an all-Czech regiment full of potential separatists in Czech territory, so the men were transferred to Hungary and then to the Russian front to "fight the mad Russians," as the Austrians described it.
When my father went off to war, at age twenty-nine, my mother, twenty-seven, took over the family line of work. Typical of women at that time, she had the equivalent of a middle school education. Being from a family of means, she had studied foreign languages and embroidery and had gained an appreciation for music, art, and cooking while at finishing school. She was a talented painter, and I inherited my artistic gifts from her. Mom's specialty was making needlepoints of flower arrangements or colorful fruit with the lifelike look of Renaissance-era artwork. I later drew caricatures and embraced photography, recalling her attention to details of color, line, texture, shading, and motion.
She never received any business training, but with her husband gone, she had no choice but to manage while caring for little me. A high-end grocery business was hard to maintain when the war was raging. Most products became scarce as trade routes to the countries producing the raw materials were interrupted.
There were enormous food shortages in Bohemia, so everything was rationed. There was no tea or coffee. People stood in line for meats, flour, and potatoes. Paying exorbitant sums on the black market was often the only way to obtain necessities. Because of our grocery business, my mother was able to give food to the hungry people on the Beneov streets. When I was a small boy, she took me with her. In sometimes freezing weather, we stood in the small square handing out fresh warm bread, salt, and potatoes. I had an excellent role model for charity and compassion and a mother who made me feel secure enough to explore new environments.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Dear Boy"
Copyright © 2019 Joanie Holzer Schirm.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface: Valdik’s Flight (Valdik Holzer: March 1939) Introduction: How Emptying Boxes Filled My Life (Joanie Holzer Schirm, 2018) Valdik’s Story 1. A Gifted Life 2. Bohemian Recollections 3. A World at War 4. A House of Many Rooms 5. “Without books, history is silent.” 6. Proud Czechs First 7. As if Stopped Mid-Gesture: Cafe Mánes 8. In Service of a Doomed Country 9. Compassionate Strangers 10. The Long Route to China 11. China Pulls Me In 12. A World Apart 13. Snowdrifts, Machine Guns, and Prayers 14. Learning to Love Peking and Its Forbidden City 15. Outback of Nowhere—Pingting 16. Love Breathes Life into the Heart 17. Leaving China 18. From Freedom to Infamy 19. A New Life in a New World 20. The Letter That Changed Everything 21. Dealing with the Outcome Epilogue Acknowledgments Appendix Notes Index