From the moment I read the last letter that my grandfather Arnošt wrote to my dad, I knew it held meaning beyond the four walls of my writing room. Dated April 21, 1942, just three days before Arnošt and my grandmother Olga Holzer were taken from Prague on a Nazi transport to their deaths, the letter introduced me to a grandfather I never had a chance to meet. Now I know the lessons revealed during my seven-year writing journey has led me to this moment of sharing a gift unlike any other. Discovery, research, and understanding of the past has presented me with an opportunity to change the future.
The news of today is filled with stories of forcibly displaced persons seeking safe haven. As desperate men, women, and children travel across dangerous water bodies in overloaded rafts, if we listen, we hear echoes from another time in the late 1930s. Chased from their native land because of oppression, prejudice, and hate, today almost daily we hear of refugees who drowned while the world debates what it should do for humanity. We must learn from our past.
In grave danger, these innocents of today reflect what’s revealed in the hundreds of WWII letters my Czech father hid away some seven decades earlier when his refugee status came to an end in America. From his old letters, correspondents made up of friends and relatives caught in the turmoil of war, desperate human faces emerge. They cling to the cold WWII statistics from which we teach our children history. Their voices hold great promise today for building empathy among students who will then understand why we must protect human rights and dignity.
There’s a reason why nonfiction stories resonate and help us learn. The real people of the letters, portrayed in my book Adventurers Against Their Will, speak to us in a different way than fiction characters. While the actual letter writers describe tumultuous circumstances, we look for ourselves or our loved ones in the images they create. From their authenticity, we walk in their shoes and understand their pain and dreams for a better future.
Recently, I participated as a guest author at the Florida Council for the Social Studies (FCSS) and Florida Association for Media in Education (FAME). Soon, I’ll appear at the upcoming Annual Conference of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) sharing lesson plans tied to real life stories from past and present. I’m confident the purpose of my writing journey is unfolding just as it was meant to through shared experiences that matter for today. The Florida Department of Education chose my book for their Recommended Reading List, Grades 9-12. The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Germany is distributing Lesson Plans to German and Austrian educators. American teachers are requesting the lesson plans (prepared by A Pass Education Group) that accompany Adventurers Against Their Will or creating they’re own (Orlando’s Dr. Phillips High School Center for International Studies Program).
From what they experience, feel, and learn in their studies, high school students may become the peacemakers of the future. A true story tells it best.