As I read Anne Joseph’s article about Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg’s discovery of his aunt’s correspondence of a family lost in the Holocaust, I was reminded of how this is happening daily around the world to we whose families were changed forever by the Holocaust. This happened to me in 2000, just after my Czech-American father died. Opening two antique Chinese boxes changed my life as a secret stash of 400 WWII letters, written by 78 writers— mostly Jewish relatives and friends from around the world—revealed their truths during a devastating time. Like my father who received most of the letters while a refugee in China, many correspondents were forcibly displaced by the Nazis to a very foreign land. Many were letters from relatives I never got to meet: my great grand-mother, Marie Porges Holzer, my grand parents Arnost and Olga (nee Orlik) Holzer, and 42 other Czech relatives who vanished in the Holocaust.
Since publishing Adventurers Against Their Will, my debut book in English and Czech in 2013 and 2014, I’ve dedicated myself to education about the importance of protecting human rights and dignity. The nonfiction book tells the story of my global quest to find seven of the letter writers or their descendants, to deliver their saved letters, and to learn the rest of their stories from lives reimagined. Most of what they wrote 70 years earlier reflects the agonies of current refugees displaced by persecution and war.
I’ve finished the companion book manuscript for my dad’s epic tale through five continents during 1939-1945 – from Prague through Africa to the interior of China to the Americas. While I look for an active literary agent and publisher, I spend hours in U.S. classrooms seeking to inspire students to find the details of their own past. Our family histories, and especially those in Israel, all contain an immigrant story. Often the immigrant was a forcibly displaced person. For students to gain empathy they must see their own faces in the past. I wish to be part of the transformative force in the 21st century that seeks to teach the lessons and inspire new generations not only to care, but to care enough to act. It is so good to hear that Rabbi Wittenberg is committed to the same education mission with his new book, My Dear Ones. We, the first and second generations after the Holocaust must now step up to our calling to preserve their stories and create a better future.
From an Orlando, Florida teacher: A Real-World Lesson Plan
I am a Center for International Studies Magnet English Teacher at Dr. Phillips High School. I work with freshman, and this year, 2016, we were fortunate enough to be introduced to a wonderful real-world and relevant research project through the inspiration of Joanie Schirm, author of Adventurers Against Their Will. Mrs. Schirm met with the Media Specialist and me to provide customized lesson plans to make this unit of learning the best fit for our students. She offered a plethora of primary and secondary resources for teacher and student use to make this a personal and educational experience.
Mrs. Schirm is fully dedicated to impassioning young people to learn from their past, value it, and continue to grow and learn about themselves because of it. She visited the students as we introduced their “Genealogy Projects” and shared her adventure in writing, researching, and communicating with a network of family, friends, and experts to paint a mosaic of incredible stories tied together by documented evidence and first-hand interviews.
As students conducted their own research on an aspect of their family history, such as migration patterns, ancestry, health history, love stories, etc., they emailed Mrs. Schirm for guidance and received a response from her with a plethora of ideas and resources to explore. Students spent 6 months brainstorming, researching, interviewing, collecting artifacts and documents, and building a story to share with their classmates and other faculty and parents. Parents contacted me with appreciation on opening up dialogue in the family with grandparents, great grandparents and family members during the process that led to priceless moments that will be treasured.
Mrs. Schirm also visited our students on the last day of presentations to debrief them on continuing to dig deeper and appreciate the information they are uncovering today. Many students shared their enthusiasm, shock, tears, and curiosity throughout this experience and they look forward to building on this project in future years. Mrs. Schirm’s commitment and passion have fueled a journey for myself, my students, and others at our school to implement parts of her book and process in their classes to make learning personal, real-world, and relevant. We cannot thank Mrs. Schirm enough for her mentorship of our youth.
Nilam B. Patel, English I and II Chair, Dr. Phillips High School, Center for International Studies Magnet