A Story for Today – My Dear Boy Book Reviews Remind Why Learning History Matters

From the writing journey…

Since the March 1, 2019 publication by Potomac Books of My Dear Boy: A World War II Story of Escape, Exile, and Revelation, the reception of this powerful story of my Czech Jewish father’s past that resonates in our present time has been wondrous. (book trailer) Today, I share with you two book reviews that speak to the heart of the story:

Sunday, September 1, 2019, “My Dear Boy” book review, Goldsboro News-Argus

Extraordinary biography honors all who struggle in exile

By Liz Meador, Language Matters

Ideas for topics for this column come from many sources, and I especially appreciate family and friends who suggest books to review. For last week’s article about “Ruthless River,” I am indebted to my sister Marie and brother-in-law John who read and discussed the memoir in one of two book clubs to which they belong.

The suggestion for this week’s extraordinary book comes from my friend Dr. John McRae who attended school with Joanie Holzer Schirm, author of “My Dear Boy: A World War II Story of Escape, Exile, and Revelation” (2019).  McRae has become an unofficial promoter of book as he would like to see it studied in schools.

The “boy” in the title is contained in the salutation of a letter from Schirm’s paternal grandfather to his son, Oswald Holzer, nicknamed Valdik. This letter occurs at the book’s close when the fate of Valdik’s parents is to become two of the millions of Jews removed from their homes and taken to concentration camps and certain death. Schirm discovered 400 letters her father had kept in two Chinese red lacquered boxes as she and her siblings sorted through their parents’ belongings at the Florida beach condo where they had resided before their deaths. Her father died in 2000, but Joanie Schirm and her siblings, Tom and Pat, had no idea of the journey their parents had undergone to find a home in America. The tragic tone of this final letter from his parents haunted Valdik, who never thought he had done enough to remove his parents from the Nazis’ program of deliberate extermination of Jews.

Schirm’s goal to publish a book about her father took years of planning, but she had sold her Orlando engineering consulting firm, and she was inspired by her grandfather’s words to his son Valdik: “I wish for you to find full satisfaction in your profession [as a physician]. I also wish that your profession of curing doesn’t just become a source of wealth for you but that you yourself become a benefactor to suffering humanity.”


The book’s subtitle reveals its approximate organization into three major portions, beginning with the chapter entitled “My Flight.” Told in her father’s words from the letters, Valdik relates that he crossed five continents to find a place where he felt accepted though he was a refugee running from the German army which would have murdered him. Twenty-seven when his journey begins, Valdik starts his story with his birth in 1911 to Arnošt and Olga Holzer in a small town, Benešov, twenty-five miles southeast of Prague. His parents and grandparents were prosperous merchants who gave Valdik a comfortable childhood and education at Charles University where Valdik became a doctor of medicine.

Jews had lived in the area since 1570, and by 1893 numbered 800. Valdik’s family practiced no religion, however, in a country where Catholics and Lutherans prevailed. In 1914, Valdik was three years old when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Valdik’s father joined the Austro-Hungarian army which he served for four years during which he was incarcerated in a Russian prisoner of war camp in Siberia. Life continued after World War I, but Valdik became more aware of the prejudices against Jews as he grew older: “I never thought of myself as Jewish. I felt being Jewish. . .meant belonging to a religious community and going to services, which my family rarely did. Like others in Bohemia [now the Czech Republic] who mixed Jewish and Czech Protestant traditions and culture, we celebrated Christmas and Easter in a non-religious way that today we might describe as commercial.”

The family revered books, art, music, science, technology, and history instead. Books fed Valdik’s interest in medicine to the extent that the family moved to Prague so that Valdik could graduate from Charles University. Prague had a Jewish population of about 35,000, and Valdik began to worry as Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitic Nazis won seats in the Reichstag in the 1932 election. Valdik admitted that he was naïve to believe that “a government of law” could quell Hitler’s power. By 1935, the Nazis had adopted the Nuremberg Race Laws which stripped Jewish Germans of citizenship and imprisoned those who intermarried.

Exile in China

After graduation, Valdik served two years in the Czech army, but as he watched Hitler’s advance, he knew he needed to leave his homeland to find a place where he could establish himself as a doctor and send for his parents. Eliminating Palestine and the United States, Valdik learned that China was a possibility for his resettlement. In May 1939, his family bade him farewell, and he embarked on the long journey, chronicling his time in Shanghai with his ever-present camera and in letters. Valdik accepted several jobs in medicine, but they were part-time or they shut down. Finally, he heard about the need for a chief physician at the American Mission Hospital in Pingting Hsien in North China. Hampered by lack of the Chinese language, Valdik accepted the mission’s offer to send him to Peking {Beijing} for three months to study Chinese language and culture.

In his letters Valdik recounted the struggle he had as a doctor to impose modern science on patients who relied on superstition. He urged patients to open the windows to allow fresh air, but the Chinese believed that their “home ghost” would escape.

Meeting Ruth

Valdik’s story continued in Peking where he met Ruth Lequear, the daughter of American missionaries from the German Reformed Church China Mission. Ruth had been born in Hunan Province, so her Chinese was excellent. Immediately the couple found parallels in their backgrounds and common interests that led them to love and marriage. They eventually realized they must leave China as turmoil continued. After much red tape in securing visas, they sailed for San Francisco then Los Angeles where they stayed with Ruth’s relatives until they could find work.

Schirm calls her book “narrative nonfiction biography,” and it is all those genres and more. She creates a tribute to her father and all people who have endured exile and exclusion.

Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.

And, #2:  Backstory and Review 



Secret History: The O.A. Holzer Medical Center


SECRET HISTORY  Dateline: 1981

Oswald Holzer 1938

The boots gave him away. “The Germans,” the train conductor quietly observed when he came to the young medical officer, “won’t fail to notice those army boots of yours.” Two weeks earlier the Nazis had seized control of Czechoslovakia. On March 15, 1939, a triumphant Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Service, arrived in Prague. A fortnight later, Oswald Holzer found himself on a train trying to pass unnoticed by the SS and Gestapo’s watchful eyes. Holzer remembered trying to conceal the tell-tale boots by pulling his pant legs down. “That won’t help,” the friendly conductor added, “You have to keep moving. There are Gestapo on the train…” (Schirm, 2019, p. 53)

Oswald Holzer Keep Moving

The past two weeks had been chaotic for the twenty-eight-year old, newly minted physician. The Czech army ceased to exist. Hitler’s henchmen began an active campaign of arrests and detention of what they deemed politically and racially suspect individuals. The situation was particularly dire for Holzer, a Jew and army officer, who had had the temerity to publicly criticize the Nazis thugs. “Keep moving” was the conductor’s imperative advice. During the next thirteen years, Holzer did “keep moving” making his way across Europe to Egypt, Yemen, Djibouti, Singapore, Shanghai, China’s interior, and on to Peru, and Ecuador, and, finally, in the summer of 1952 to Melbourne, Florida, where Holzer became the seventh doctor accredited to the Brevard Hospital Staff (Holmes Regional Medical Center). Until his death in 2000, Holzer and his wife Ruth Alice “Chick” Holzer found a safe haven “in a cozy Melbourne Beach house one block from the ocean —our only enemy the ubiquitous mosquito.” (Schirm, 2019, p. 286)

Oswald Holzer was a remarkable man. Like so many immigrants, Holzer felt a deep love for the country that had given him refuge. In the 1950s and 1960s, he served on innumerable city, county, and state commissions. He had a special passion for helping young people. That was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Holzer became friends with his Melbourne Beach neighbor Jerry Keuper. A graduate of Charles University in Prague, Holzer shared Keuper’s conviction that education held the key to a better future. China was another connection. Keuper had served as an intelligence officer in the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) during World War II. The two men regaled one another (and whoever else would listen) with stories of their experiences in the Middle Kingdom. When Holzer told Keuper of his intention to retire, Keuper began his campaign to convince Holzer to become the head of the fledgling college’s student health center.

The need for a campus student health center had surfaced in 1970. The initial “missilemen” (both men and women) who worked at the Cape who had formed the first cohort of Brevard Engineering College and Florida Tech students were covered by their employers’ health plans. Florida Tech had become a residential college by 1970. On January 27, 1970, Jerry Keuper held his annual meeting with student body. In his prepared remarks, Keuper announced plans for a new dormitory which would include a cafeteria (Evans Hall) and a “snack bar” that would be open “til one o’clock in the morning…so it will always be available for cokes and hot dogs.” Additional plans called for enhancing student services included a four-lane bowling alley, improvements in the gymnasium, and expanded parking.

At the end of his presentation, Keuper asked if there were any questions. “Is there any chance,” a student shouted, “of getting [a]campus health facility?” Keuper acknowledged that this was a growing concern. A recent flu epidemic had swept through the dormitories. Students complained that they were unable to find a doctor willing to treat them. “This is something,” Keuper declared, “that I’ve been concerned about recently with all this flu epidemic. Up until very recently we really haven’t had a pressing need for someone full time on campus such as a doctor or a nurse. But I think the time has come where we’ve got to give it very serious consideration. It might be that we should consider putting some sort of infirmary in the new building. Anyway, that’s a good point and we are going to have to do something about it very soon.” (Anonymous, February 10, 1970,

Jerry Keuper’s use of the word “soon” is open to interpretation. Four years elapsed before the university was able to employ a full-time physician. In 1974, Oswald Holzer retired from his medical practice. In 1975, Holzer agreed to become Florida Tech’s unpaid medical director. During the next six years, Holzer, who was affectionally known as “Bubba,” organized the college’s nascent student health center. Seven years later, in June 1981, the ground was broken on the O.A. Holzer Student Health Center. The $65,000 facility which was located on the west side of Country Club Road was largely financed through the generosity of the Holzer family. (Anonymous, 1981)

Oswald Holzer continued to serve as the university’s medical director until the early 1990s. In 1984, Holzer and his wife returned to China where they had met in Beijing nearly forty years earlier. When they returned from China, Oswald and “Chick” Holzer chronicled their experiences in the inaugural lecture in the university’s Humanities Lecture Series in the pavilion of the newly opened Evans Library. As a memento of the conductor’s advice to “Keep Moving,” the Holzer’s presented the Evans Library with a Tang Dynasty relief of a horse that hangs in the library’s stairwell.

A Red Chinese Lacquered Box

Oswald Holzer died in 2000, two days after his beloved wife Chick’s passing. In the weeks following their passing, the Holzer’s children (Tom, Pat, and Joanie) began the process of sorting through their parents’ belongings. “My siblings and I reminisced,” Joanie Schirm recalled, “…until Pat brought us back to the task at hand. ‘Where do we start?’ ‘With the Chinese red lacquered boxes,’ Tom laughed.” The two boxes contained 400 letters that Oswald Holzer had kept chronicling the odyssey that brought him from a railway carriage in Europe to a “cozy home” in Melbourne Beach. In 2019, Potomac Books an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press published Joanie Schirm’s edition of these papers in My Dear Boy: A World War II Story of Escape, Exile, and Revelation.

The letters document moments of monumental pain and loss. And, yet, through all the suffering, Oswald Holzer remained hopeful that good could prevail. In 1945, Oswald Holzer learned that his parents had perished in the Holocaust. An aunt sent him a sealed envelope which contained his father’s final message. “My dear boy,” Arnost Holzer wrote, “you have always been a good boy, and we are proud of you. I wish for you to find full satisfaction in your profession. I also wish that your profession of curing doesn’t just become a source of wealth for you but that you yourself become a benefactor to the suffering of humanity.” (Schirm, 2019, p. 269) The Holzer Student Health Center is but one example of Oswald and Ruth Holzer’s service to others.

A Life Well Lived

The students, faculty, and staff at Florida Tech who knew Oswald Holzer will always remember the sparkle in his eye, his contagious laughter, and his gentle, self-effacing irony. On March 8, 1940, in a letter sent from China to his cousin Hana Winternitz in London, Holzer observed: “You know, when one gets out into the world, only then is one able to see what a conceited simpleton he has been. I realize more and more how unworldly, and in a way provincial we are. And so, Adolf provided us with at least this profit, albeit we paid dearly for it.” (Schirm, 2019, p. xxvi) Sound advice from an immigrant who found a home in America and played a critical role in improving countless lives.

A brief overview of Oswald Holzer’s life

Note: Joanie Schirm’s My Dear Boy is a marvelous read. www.joanieschirm.com

Anonymous. (1981, June). Healthy Start. The Pelican, 8(6).
Anonymous. (February 10, 1970). Keuper Meets with Students. The Crimson, 3(11).
Schirm, J. H. (2019). My Dear Boy: A World War II Story of Escape, Exile, and Revelation: Potomac Books.

Sorting through her parents’ belongings after their deaths, Joanie Holzer Schirm discovered an extraordinary lost world. Hand-written on faded and brittle stationary, stamped by Nazi censors and military authorities, and neatly filed in two lacquered boxes were some 400 letters by 78 correspondents along with carbon copies of the messages her Czech father had sent to them during World War II.  Author Joanie Holzer Schirm had the letters translated and turned what she learned about the world then and now into two nonfiction books: Adventurers Against Their Will (Global eBook Award winner: Best Biography 2013) and My Dear Boy. She’s a writer, community activist, photographer, retired Orlando, Florida award-winning businesswoman, sought after public speaker and a regular contributor to the Central Florida 100 Sunday column for the Tribune’s Orlando Sentinel.   joanie@joanieschirm.com     www.joanieschirm.com 

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