What “Never Again” Means To Me: Discovering My Family’s Story

Reader Joanie Holzer Schirm submitted the following response to the question “What does never again mean to you?”

In May 1939, a young Jewish army surgeon, Oswald “Valdik” Holzer, fled his Nazi-occupied Czech homeland for China. His parents and most of his relatives stayed behind. Valdik worked for eight months in the war-torn interior of China before arriving in Beijing in the fall of 1940. Soon after, he fell madly in love with Ruth Alice Lequear, born in China to her American missionary parents. My parents were married five weeks later and lived a 60-year love affair.

For me, “never again” is deeply personal. At 64 years of age, I now fully understand what my father lost, and what I lost as well. I grew up without the opportunity to meet my Czech grandparents, Arnost and Olga Holzer. I also never met 42 relatives who in 1942 were taken by the Nazis to concentration camps. All of them perished. Other relatives suffered in forced labor camps; their lives changed forever. My father rarely spoke of this tragedy. In fact, I didn’t know about the 42 relatives who perished until 1993, when my father typed a list of their names. He did not want to talk more about it.

In 2000, both my parents died within two days of each other. Among my father’s possessions was a secret treasure trove: 400 letters by 78 Czech writers who corresponded with him during the war. When I had the letters translated, I had the very unusual opportunity to meet my grandparents through their written words. I got to know their kind nature and humor, and then mourn their loss.

The first letter I had translated was my grandfather’s last letter to his only child, my dad. It holds a last wish: that he not use his “profession of curing just to garner wealth but to help the suffering humanity.” Growing up unaware of the letter, I had observed my father live out his father’s wish as a very compassionate and generous doctor. Written three days before his deportation, Arnost Holzer’s poignant message represents “never again” through an instruction about how we should treat humanity.

Finding the letters was an incredible gift but they also raised many questions: Who were these people? What was happening around them and why? What became of them? I contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for help unraveling the puzzle. I’ve received research help along with moral support as I completed two non-fiction companion books about my father’s life and the historical period of the letter writers. After I learned from Museum researchers that my grandparents might have perished in Sobibor in 1942, I visited the site of this killing center accompanied by an expert recommended by the Museum, who made the experience exceedingly meaningful. The Museum has also recommended experts who have reviewed my books to ensure historical accuracy. Thanks to the Museum, I have also found pertinent records that I’ve shared with relatives and descendants of the letter writers.

The letters personalize the history of the Holocaust. They speak to rising antisemitism (not just in Europe but in America), they speak to what it is like to lose your homeland, to become an immigrant, to be forced to rebuild a life. A letter sent by a close friend of my father just after the war predicts the rise of Holocaust denial. When I complete my own writing, I intend to donate the letters to the Museum so that scholars can forever access them. I hope that when they belong to the Museum, the letters will help the world understand the meaning of “never again.”

Joanie Holzer Schirm lives in Orlando, Florida. Her first book on her father’s collection of letters, Adventurers Against Their Will, will be published in April 2013.

Photo: Oswald “Valdik” Holzer and Ruth Alice Lequear at the time of their marriage in Beijing, October 1940. Courtesy of Joanie Holzer Schirm