Adven­tur­ers Against Their Will: Extra­or­di­nary World War II Sto­ries of Sur­vival, Escape, and Con­nec­tion-Unlike Any Others

Joanie Holz­er Schirm
  • Review
April 4, 2014

Metic­u­lous­ly researched, Joanie Holz­er Schirm’s Adven­tur­ers Against Their Will is a labor of love. Upon her par­ents’ death, she finds a trea­sure trove of four hun­dred let­ters of World War II cor­re­spon­dence between her father, a physi­cian, and his friends and rel­a­tives from his war-torn home­land of Czecho­slo­va­kia. The let­ters span con­ti­nents as he escapes to Chi­na, where he con­tin­ues to prac­tice med­i­cine, while his cor­re­spon­dents are either stuck in hid­ing, bat­tling for sur­vival in con­cen­tra­tion camps, or refugees them­selves in oth­er countries.

The author is intrigued by this his­to­ry her father nev­er shared with her, and thus she goes on a quest to find out who these peo­ple were and what hap­pened to them. The result is a wax muse­um of char­ac­ters and a trib­ute to a cul­ture oblit­er­at­ed by the Nazi inva­sion of Czecho­slo­va­kia and their sys­tem­at­ic exter­mi­na­tion of its mem­bers: a group of high­ly edu­cat­ed, utter­ly assim­i­lat­ed Jews who are sur­prised to be pegged as such, when they want noth­ing more than to be rec­og­nized as Czech.

At times the mul­ti­tude of names is over­whelm­ing, espe­cial­ly in the case of those who change their names sev­er­al times to hide their Jew­ish ori­gin. Thank­ful­ly, the author pro­vides a cast of char­ac­ters for each sto­ry she presents as well as well-researched his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion and maps that help ori­ent the read­er. Over­all, this book is a cel­e­bra­tion of friend­ship and sur­vival against all odds.

Sad­ly, how­ev­er, it is not a cel­e­bra­tion of the sur­vival of Judaism. The author her­self does Judaism a dis­ser­vice as she sees it only as a reli­gion, which is hard­ly her fault, as she was raised with­out any aware­ness of Jew­ish cul­ture and tra­di­tion. Like her, none of the next gen­er­a­tion of these sur­vivors were raised Jew­ish or kept any kind of Jew­ish tra­di­tion, let alone reli­gious obser­vance, and thus it might not be a sur­prise that her father, on his deathbed, shakes his head vio­lent­ly” when his son says that his gen­er­a­tion won — made it through the Holo­caust and sprout­ed new branch­es on the fam­i­ly tree.” 

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