My Dear Boy by author Joanie Schirm

For questions about this lesson plan, contact Author Joanie Holzer Schirm, Primary source documents used in this lesson plan are a part of the Holzer Collection.


Letter received by Oswald “Valdik” Holzer, from his mother’s cousin Valerie “Vala” Vodicka, who was able to get to America just before the war started.  The letter came to Peking (Beijing), China, from Camden, Maine, August 22, 1940.

Erma forwarded me your letter.  I can imagine how you feel, and I would be happy if you could get here as soon as possible.  Not that the conditions here are much better.  There is a huge unemployment problem and strong anti-Semitic feelings.  In the newspapers, you can read daily ads as: “Will hire Aryan,” etc., signs on some houses read:  “Will rent a flat, to Aryans only.”  I am not afraid of anything, and curiously waiting how it all ends.  I don’t see a bright future though.

Just as you, I considered myself a Czech first, Judaism was an inherited faith, which I was not interested in too much, but I would never deny.

After Sudeten, when almost everything would be blamed on Jews, I was deeply insulted.  I finally understood the words of Theodor Herzl, who said that his Judaism awakened when he observed the French mob mentality, as they alighted when Dreyfus’s rank marks and buttons were ripped off, but they didn’t laugh that a human has been degraded but because he was a Jew.

 When I was pointing out in an argument how willingly Jewish people contributed to the state’s security, my longtime friends told me: “It’s only to save themselves, not because of patriotism.”  I will tell you one thing: I came to the conclusion that the majority of people are narrow-minded, extra selfish, and ruthless.  In the good days, they act as wolves with full stomachs towards the minority—they let them be.  But alas, if they are living in crisis, there are only a handful of respectable, intelligent, and unprejudiced people who make any serious change alone.

If someone asks about my nationality, I usually answer: I am a Jew, born in Bohemia.  I would get christened only if someone threatened me that they will cut my hair off if I don’t obey.  I don’t mind being a Jew, but even at my age, I would have to blush if they called me a christened Jew.

The Czech people in America have founded “National Coalition.”  I am not a member yet—I am still undecided.  I went to a few meetings, but I don’t feel that I belong there.  I feel like I am between people who speak a different language.  I know a few Jewish members, who contribute with huge amounts of money and are involved in everything, but I still have the impression that they are there only tolerated.

Please write again soon.  I assure you that it doesn’t bother us at all if you need us to take care of some of your matters.  If only we could do something that would bring the awaited outcome.  Please take care and keep the faith.

Your Vala



  1.  Are you surprised by the antisemitic acts that Vala describes in Paragraph 1?  Why or why not?
  2. Read about the Dreyfus Affair here.
  3. Explain what Vala is describing in Paragraph 4, about the way Americans act toward minorities/immigrants.
  4. In Paragraph 6, Vala talks about not feeling like she belongs in the group.  Why might she feel this way?  Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong?  What did you do?
  5. In the last paragraph, Vala tells Valdik that they can “take care of some of your matters.”  What might she mean?  What could she help him with?


Letter from Valdik’s father, Arnost Holzer, in 1941:

Your report about movie theaters is very nice.  We, unfortunately, haven’t known what a screen in a cinema looks like for a long time, let alone heard anything from a loudspeaker.  All that we hear now is the gramophone, which we daily play in the evening after eight when we have to sit nicely home.

As far as our quota is concerned, we do not pay attention to it.  It will not be so soon anyway, and then Mom is afraid of seasickness.  So we ask you, dear Valdi, though we know you are kind and attentive and concerned about us, not to do or undertake anything until we call on you.  In the meantime, you will receive your medical papers, it seems all is going quickly, then you will be able to visit us with dear Ruth, and then we can talk in peace about what can be done further.  We thank you also for taking care of us, including insurance, but believe me, it is not necessary, and we would surely cover the price for the journey and expenses as usual.  We are pleased by your thoughtfulness, and it is a great solace for us that you care about us so much.



  1. What are the Holzers doing for entertainment?  Why is entertainment important in our lives, especially when our lives are changing?
  1. What is Mr. Holzer’s attitude about the quotas?  Why do you think he reacts this way?  How do you predict his attitude might change as the war develops?
  2. What is the tone of the letter?
  3. Why wouldn’t the parents pay attention to their quota number?
  4. Why do you suppose the parents aren’t overly concerned about leaving?  Think back to your first packet, “Why Didn’t They Just Leave?” – what connections can you make here?


Letter from Valdik’s father, 1941

We can see from your photographs of Southern California cactuses that you are content and how beautiful it must be there.  Those cactuses have always been your hobby, and Mom almost anxiously guards every specimen that you once sent from Slovakia.  When you are taking those to America one day, it will be quite a transportation challenge.

Dear Mom still and constantly worries about all those flowers.  In our apartment, we don’t have as much room as we used to, so she has to shift them constantly, searching for a sunny spot so they would thrive.

Now the fall storms will start on the ocean—you know how Mom travels only with difficulty.  And me, it would be a trip like the one I experienced with you as a young boy, dear Valdi, when we went from Venice to Trieste, and you wanted to disembark in the middle of the sea.  Let’s leave it till when the sea calms down, and there won’t be such big waves on it.

If you firmly decide to stay in the United States one day, then we are ready to follow you as soon as possible so we could live together with you—because as we have written to you a number of times, it wouldn’t be a life for us only to longingly await a letter and a visit once every few years.

You must have read in your local newspaper about the strange symbol that we will wear on our chest in a week.  We will soon know what general impression it will make.  It is odd when we read all the time how racially different we are, and because of this need to have that special badge so everyone can easily recognize us.


  1. In the first two paragraphs, what could the flowers and plants symbolize?  How is Valdik’s father using them as a metaphor?
  2. What is the metaphor in Paragraph 3?  Remember, letters during the war were censored by the Nazis, so language often needed to be changed.
  3. In the last paragraph, what is the “strange symbol” they will be forced to wear?  Valdik’s father assumes Valdik would have read about it in his newspaper.  Research Option 1:  Look at your own local newspaper in 1941 and see if anything was reported about the Jews being forced to wear yellow stars. You can also visit for further instructions on how to use your research to add to a national research initiative of the USHMM. You can also explore existing research on this topic and perhaps even find info on local/state news coverage.
    Research Option 2:  How long ago did the marking or labeling of the Jewish people begin?  What was the “badge” in previous ages?

Cable from October 22, 1941, from the Holzers in Prague:

“Go to the Travel Bureau Lubin Havana and get an entry visa and ship tickets for Ernst and Olga Holzer immediately.”

 Following this cable came a letter, handwritten since typewriters had been taken from the Jews of Prague in 1941, as well as bicycles.

Dear Children,

We don’t have any messages from you this week, so we have been without a letter for the last three weeks.  Just now, we would need your words.  I told you in the last letter that transports are being sent, but we still are calm and haven’t asked you to undertake anything for us.  Meanwhile, many of our acquaintances decided to send a cable to their relatives overseas to ask them for help in emigrating.

As you know, I have turned down your many offers to help.  However, given the present circumstances that confront us, with the advice of our many friends, and after much consideration, we decided to send you a telegraph.  You undoubtedly received the cable, and we are waiting for your answer this week.

We don’t want to burden you, and we hope that if you decide in our favor that your financial burden, however temporary, will be bearable for you.  You will certainly also consider the obligations you took on for dear Ruth [his new wife].  We don’t want your sacrifice to be at her expense.

We don’t worry about making a living.  In spite of my age, I feel strong enough to take any work.  I don’t have to write to you about your mom’s vitality.  As you know, she overcame hard times with her strong will, although she made the greatest sacrifices for us.  We don’t want to and will not owe you anything; we just need your immediate help so that we won’t be sent away from here, as I explained to you in detail last time.

Of our acquaintances, Dr. Langer and his wife and daughter have left on transports; further registered for transports are the Steiners, also old Fischer, and perhaps also my brother Leo with family.  Elsa and son Hanus.  That is all I wanted to write you about this matter. . .

Yesterday Franta Schoenbaum and his boy visited us.  He would like to leave as well, but he faces obstacles that he won’t be able to overcome easily.  His boy, Honza, is a rascal, so we had fun with him.

This time I am not writing too much because I am not in the mood for it these days.  I hope though that soon, I will find my mental balance and will find the resolve for a long letter.

With warm greetings and kisses,

                                                                        Your loving Father


And an addition from Valdik’s mother, Olga:

My Dear Valdik:

You cannot even imagine how difficult it is to live here.  My wish was not to see any of my friends depart.  The Langers already had my farewell; the Kes family is already waiting for transport; cousin Hanicka Steiner and her husband will stay yet because pregnant women are not sent in transports.  She is expecting little Ruzicka in October.  We often regret that we did not travel to join you.  I admit that we were afraid to be a burden on you in a foreign country.  We wish from the bottom of our hearts and souls to be united with you but will have to leave it to fate whether it decides that we should see each other again.

                                                                                                With kisses.


  1. Discuss the tones of each letter.
  2. Why are Valdik’s parents ready to leave Prague now?  What are they willing to do/sacrifice to get there?

After receiving this letter, Valdik contacted his uncle Bill, who was attempting to bring other relatives to the United States.  When Valdik mentioned his parents’ wish to go through Cuba, Bill reminded him of the MS St. Louis.  Optional Research:  Read the article on the St. Louis. 


Research option 2:  IWitness Activity on the St. Louis


Bill also wrote: “Cables like the one you mentioned came probably by the hundreds.  I received three, two from my sisters and one from Franz Holzer, who probably must be a cousin of ours as he was born in Jenikov, whom I met once in my life.  They all ask the same thing—visas for Cuba.”  (233)


Think about how it must have felt to be on the receiving end of a letter from family you didn’t know or didn’t know well.  How inclined or obligated might you feel?  Watch Esther Clifford’s testimony on sending letters like the one above:

Bill wrote back to Valdik on October 29, 1941:

The travel agency told me that it is not difficult to get a visa, but the sum they quoted took my breath away.  First, the Cuban Government demands a $2,000 deposit per person, which is supposed to be refunded when the immigrant leaves the country.  However, there is a Cuban bank that makes the deposit for you if you send them $150, which is, of course, not returned.  Then next $250, the cost of the visas; $500 sustenance deposit; and $250 for the return trip ticket—altogether $1,050 per person.  To this total must be added the cost of the steamship ticket from Lisbon to Havana, which is at present $510 per person.  Multiply this by twelve [the number of relatives Bill had thought he could help], and you can visualize what I am up against and why I cannot help cousins like Franz.

If you want to rescue your parents, you will need immediately $2,100.  You can use the thousand dollars I lent you, and if you are absolutely unable to get the rest of the money, I will lend you some more, but please do not mention it when writing home because other relatives would swamp me with the same requests.  It is hard to refuse; one feels like sentencing these people to deportation, God knows to where, yet my resources are limited.  I am just a chemist, and all that I have is from saving from my salary.  The issue is too big for one man to handle, yet it preys on my mind whenever I have to refuse.


  1. How do you think Valdik felt, receiving this letter?
  2. What was the process for deciding who you could help and who you couldn’t? Discuss the difficulty of this for families.
  3. Research the value of money in 1941 in the US and contrast to today. In today’s currency and values, how much would $2,100 be?
  4. Look up the sums in today’s currency. How likely would it be for a person to be able to afford to bring relatives to the US, based on the financial circumstances alone?
  5. Analyze Bill’s last sentence. What is going through his thoughts?

Letter from the Holzers to Valdik, November 22, 1941:

So far, five transports have left, so with them a few of my close acquaintances.  Various messages have come from them, some of which calmed the nervous crowd.  For the past three weeks, no transports have been sent, but there are rumors that they will be renewed at the end of the month.  We are upset that, given our impression of the first measures, we didn’t consider the matter more carefully and sent that telegram to you, Dr. Valdi.  Today we would give much, much if we only could take it back.  We could have avoided making your already hard position even harder and spared you all those sacrifices you had to make, the financial and physical ones, to obtain what we had asked you for so carelessly.

It is absolutely out of the question for us to live in a country where we would have to accept money for living, where we wouldn’t be able to work and support ourselves.

As you advised me, I turned to Berlin but received no positive answer yet.  Rules and regulations often change here. . . now older people are forbidden to leave, so anything you might send wouldn’t help.  I beg of you not to incur any more unnecessary financial costs and not to take any further steps and just to be satisfied with those you undertook already.  You have done more than enough, and we hope the time will come when we can return everything to you to the last coin.

As soon as emigration from the country is opened again, we will let you know.  Therefore, I beg of you once more, please do not take any more steps and do not spend any more money. That way, we can all enjoy it all the better and merrier when times allow us to be reunited.


  1. What is the tone of the letter?
  2. What do the parents regret now? We often say that “hindsight is 20/20.”  How does this apply here?
  3. Why do you think the Nazis might have allowed people to write letters to those who remained behind? What effect is mentioned on the recipients?
  4. What are some of the challenges that are mentioned related to immigration? How does this connect to the immigration requirements and pieces such as Klaus Langer’s diary?


Letter from Uncle Bill, December 5, 1941

My brother, Hugo’s request, added five persons to my list, which amounts to seventeen.  I obtained the seventeen visas promptly, and in a few days I was able to cable them the numbers as given to me by the Cuban Consul in Berlin.  A few days later I received the following cable: “Klein Stein Jula Abgereist Lederers Ausreise Unbestimmt Werden Bekanntgeben Masareks Visum Fehlt Sendet Lederer Masarek Schiffskarten—Hapag.”

 First, I rejoiced, thinking that “Abgereist” means that they have departed for Cuba, but people who know more about these things told me that it means that they were sent to Poland.  I cabled back.  But though this cable was sent on November 24, I haven’t received any answer.  I am afraid that every one of them was deported.

In the Czech Colony in New York, there is a rumor that nobody is allowed to leave for America, and the Nazis never intended to release our relatives, and the only reason why they made them send the cables was to make us waste our money.  Thus, we cannot do anything but wait and hope for the best.


  1. In today’s world, we get news and communications immediately. Discuss  the difficulty expressed in this letter with the time lapses between correspondences and misunderstandings, such as with the word “Abgereist.”
  2. Why does Bill think the Nazis asked for cables?
  3. How does this letter illustrate the communication challenges that existed at this time in history?
  4. How do you think those in the “Czech Colony” in New York might have come to this conclusion?


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

One of the missions of the ICRC is to get messages sent between family members who are separated by armed conflict.  Valdik received three from his parents.  They were sent from the German Red Cross (where they had to go through German censors) through Geneva, Switzerland  The notes were limited to 25 words and often took long periods of time (even years!) to be received.

Ask students to consider how difficult it is to portray the proper tone and information in such a short space.  Ask them to connect it to contemporary modes of communication that have limitations, like a Twitter post.

Optional Research:  Look at the ICRC’s website and find out more about how they have helped people communicate during times of war.

Below are the three messages Valdik received:


February 24, 1942

We are healthy and confirm your letter of November 23, 1941.  With the best wishes for Chick’s birthday and . . .to you, from Mother!


(Delivery of this note was delayed four months by the Red Cross).


March 3, 1942 (received in the US in July 1942)

Dear children!  We hope that you are healthy, which we can also convey from our side.  Hopefully, we will soon get good news from you.  Our most sincere greetings and kisses, Ernst Holzer {Ernst is the German name for Arnost}


March 26, 1942 (postmarked in the US October 18, 1943; Valdik received it a year-and-a-half after it was written).

We have been without your news for a long time and hope that all our messages reached you.  Otherwise everything the same. . .Wholeheartedly greeting and kissing you.



  1. These communications are brief, yet tell us quite a bit of information at the same time, much like a Tweet in today’s world. Why do you think Valdik’s parents chose to communicate these thoughts at that time?
  1. Why was the last message delayed?


The Last Letter  (An excerpt from Joanie Holzer Schirm’s book: My Dear Boy)

 Letter from Aunt Valda – Valerie (nee Holzer) Marik -Valdik’s aunt; his father Arnost’s youngest sister – writing from Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) to Valdik, then in Ecuador, South America

August 5, 1945

. . .I am using the first opportunity to report some news about us, which you probably must be awaiting with great anticipation. . .I want to brief you shortly on what transpired here in those six years of war. . .

            Your parents left in April of 1942 [note the last telegram was dated March 26, 1942] for the Theresienstadt [Terezin] ghetto, but shortly thereafter they were deported to no one knows where.  We received a single card from them, from their journey to the east.  They went to the transport bravely.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t even say goodbye to them since by that time Hitler already banned us from traveling, but I heard this from several acquaintances.  Your father was allegedly in a good mood.  Maybe that’s why I was deluding myself that surely nothing could happen to him, a man of such life experience, and both he and your mother would succeed in escaping.  This fixed idea accompanies me constantly, and I can’t stop hoping that they will contact us from somewhere far away.

            Uncle Rudi and Aunt Olga were in Theresienstadt until October of last year, when they wrote to me last. Aunt Olga allegedly still looked well then, Uncle Rudi had been sick for a long time, supposedly he had angina pectoris in an advanced stage, and I was thus worried for him.  Your Uncle Leo left Theresienstadt on September 25 of last year, alone.  He held such a position there that no one would believe that he too would be transported.  He was the chief of housing.  Supposedly, he was content with his employment, looked well but in the end must have been leaving in a terrible mental state.  My heart is bleeding when I remember all that he must have gone through.  There, your cousin Hanus got pneumonia, inflammation of the pleura in April of last year but was able to survive. . .

            Grandmother, the poor thing, died after a three-month stay in Theresienstadt, but that you surely know. I mourned her a long time, but when I learned about the suffering of old people in Terezin, I wished her that peace.  Should I get the urn that was buried in T., I will have it transferred to Benesov.  It is uncertain since one of the Nazi beasts took it upon himself to empty all the ashes into River Labe before the end of the war.  It would be a miracle if the urn remained untouched. . .

            The Nazis took over ninety villages around here for military training ground.  We were given such  short notice that we couldn’t even find a place to deposit everything.  We were moving—almost pauperized and with no recompense since I am a Jewess—here to Bozkov by Mnichovice.  To top it all up, Jaroslav was in July 1944, last year, called up to labor, respectively, an internment camp in Tvorsovice and me, two months later, to Hagibor a similar establishment.  There I spent eleven weeks, and then I was transferred to the Jewish hospital, where I allowed myself to be operated on. . .

            Before his departure for the transport, your Daddy left an envelope with us.  Written on it was: “Open only if I do not return.”  Jaroslav did not want to allow me to open the envelope, but a few weeks ago I did so anyway.  Inside there was a letter for you and another one for your mother, which naturally I left unopened.  I’m sending your father’s letter to you.  Enclosed in his envelope there was a list of your parents’ things and where they are stored away.  Almost everything is with some Miss Nenadalova, daughter of the janitor of the apartment house where they last lived.  I didn’t know her at all but still sought her out and told her that you wish that I gradually end you the things, and therefore, I have to take them.  She was making all kinds of excuses. . .

Valdik did not care about his parents’ material objects, so he opened the second envelope, “read[ing] aloud the first words I’d received from my father in more than three years”:

 My dear boy!

Today we are leaving for an assembly point so that in three or four ays, we can follow the fate of those unfortunate people who have been, since last October, gradually chased out of their homes and sent to concentration camps, robbed of everything they had.  This happened to us as well, and we had to leave the ground floor and its furnishings, the flat that had always been such a cozy home to us.

Carrying only the necessary clothes, we are setting out on a journey, not knowing the day of our return or when and where we might be united again.  I am not certain whether I will get to see you again, so I decided to write these lines as my goodbye to you.

I deeply regret that I wasn’t able to know Ruth and your family life.  I wish both of you much, much happiness.

I had a lot of failures in my life.  However, I have tried, when possible, to spare you from my shortcomings and help you to become a doctor, a profession you always sought.  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 humanity.

            Should my dear wife, your mother, be left without me, I implore you to remember the great sacrifices she always made for you and to take care of her the way she deserves.  She has a small pension that she herself earned and secured, thus her means of living.  She will never be a burden to you.  I myself don’t have much property; everything is communal.  Therefore, I don’t want you to ask for our property share from your mother during her life.  In case we don’t see each other, everything will go to you.  Uncle Jaroslav Marik of Neveklov or Cousin Robert Fischer should give you a detailed list of the property.  You then can decide how to liquidate the inheritance.  I have one more wish in that respect.  If, after all the expenses, you are left with at least 30,000 Czech crowns, please pay my brother-in-law, Rudolph Winternitz, or his descendants, the sum of 30,000.  For everything he has done for me, I would like to pay my debt to him at this moment.  If you can, please fulfill my wishes.

With warm kisses and greetings, I bid you both, you and Ruth, a farewell.  I remain,

Your loving Dad


  1. These final letters are the last pieces of communication Valdik received. What feeling does it leave you with reading them over 75 years later?
  2. Why do you think his father chose to close with, “With warm kisses and greetings, I bid you both, you and Ruth, a farewell…”?
  3. Why do you think the author chose the title, “My Dear Boy” for this text?



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