Joanie Holzer Schirm was the founding president of Geotechnical and Environmental Consultants, Inc., in Orlando, Florida, which she directed for seventeen years. In this interview, she describes the research and personalities behind her new book based on her father’s letters, My Dear Boy: A World War II Story of Escape, Exile, and Revelation (Potomac Books, 2019).
Could you talk a bit about your decision to write in your father’s voice, as opposed to framing the entire book around your personal journey to uncover his past and experience?
Over the decade I wrote My Dear Boy, I experimented using different voices to share my father’s story. Whereas my earlier book was a history, My Dear Boy is more subjective. I sought the voice that would allow the reader to glean the universal dimension of his story. As I poured over his own carbon-copied letters, I learned of my father’s intent to write a book about his experiences. After listening to hours of his recorded voice and attaching myself to his power of speech, I realized I could take on his persona and write in my father’s voice. Through his eyes, as his ghostwriter, I’ve shared his against-all-odds story of adventure, pain, and accomplishment.
You mention a few people who played a part in this journey, but who were some of the most significant and/or unexpected figures who helped you in that decade of research and travel?
The first person I met was Michlean Amir, a reference archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. She was born in France to Czech Jewish refugee parents. A friendship bond instantly solidified, and throughout the next decade, Michlean played a significant role, connecting me with international experts. Her early introduction to award-winning Czech filmmaker Lukas Pribyl was in hopes that he would recommend a skilled translator to unearth the mysteries of the Holzer letter collection. Serendipitously the voices from the old letters drew him into the potboiler as he uncovered primary sources for rarely memorialized events. From Czech to English, Lukas translated the majority of the four hundred letters, adding historical footnotes and meaning as he interpreted the conversation. During four research trips to the Czech lands, Lukas played vital roles as host, translator, and friend. Some six years before the manuscript was complete, combining my father’s vintage film and bits of his recorded voice, Lukas lovingly produced the My Dear Boy book trailer.
How did you prevent yourself from coloring the writing with your own feelings and opinions during the more difficult parts of the narrative?
I knew it must be Dad’s story, not mine. I wanted it to be as factual as I could make it with evidence to back that up. Much of the detail he shared with me on tape, or I discovered it in the letters. But where gaps existed, more specifics were needed. Like a massive puzzle with pieces that suddenly fit when I found interconnecting missing links, my emotions would swing from euphoria to a storm cloud hanging over ‘our’ heads. For the narrative where Dad says his last goodbye to his parents, there was a letter and a journal entry that let me know how he felt when it occurred, and of course, he had no idea he’d never see them again. When he received the last letter from his father, I had to imagine the scene. In a twist of fate, that letter was the first letter I had translated, allowing me to meet my grandfather at the beginning of my writing journey.
Could you give us an idea of what your research process was? Was it linear and organized, or more scattered? How many translators did you work with?
Beyond film, hundreds of photographs and slides, clothing, artwork, maps, tape-recorded interviews, books, and miscellaneous ephemera, the Holzer Collection consists of 534—often multi-paged—paper items, such as letters and official documents. I’ve shown the collection to many professional archivists and curators; Henry Mayer, former chief archivist for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, called it “one of the most complete personal collections of WWII correspondence seen in years.” My research started out scattered and then moved to organization, recording data on handwritten note cards, journals, charts, maps, and timelines. Soon, from stuffed file cabinets grew a massive computer data- base where critical specifics were logged in for each of the letters and documents. Kathy (nee Pinkas) Bowman, my Czech-American assistant, managed the database, which then allowed for sharing data with experts and archives.
Most of the letters and documents are in the Czech language; a few in English; others in French, German, and Chinese. A total of fourteen translators—eleven of Czech heritage—transformed the words to English. The vast majority of translation, with cultural history footnotes, was done by Lukas Pribyl and Mirek Katzl. The Czech language and its plethora of idioms and slang, coupled with cases of “Old Czech” and an old form of German-language handwriting known as ‘Kurrent,” increased the difficulty. The letters revealed some 300 names. Over many months, I was able to identify most relationships with my father via genealogy sites, archives, and interviews. My research spanned the gambit – from identifying who all the letter writers were to examining the cultures and/or histories of Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, Jews, China, America, South America, World War I and II, and the Holocaust.