By:Joanie Holzer Schirm
"The ornately painted Chinese Boxes loomed just out of reach throughout my childhood...but my brother and sister and I paid no attention. The twin, red boxes were part of the familiar-to-the-point-of-being-invisible landscape, like that big tree outside your window with a botanical name you never learn." Sorting through her parents belongings after their deaths, Joanie Holzer Schirm discovered an extraordinary lost world. Hand-written on faded and brittle stationary, stamped by censors and military authorities, and neatly filed in those two lacquered boxes, were 400 letters from 78 correspondents-along with carbon copies of the letters her Czech father had sent to them during World War II. "My father never mentioned that he planned to leave a magnificent gift," Schirm tells us, a "treasure trove" in which "I would come across the very souls of his cousins and friends. Many of the secrets cloistered by those bright and shiny Chinese boxes were ghastly. Lives lost, lives shattered. Friends abandoned. Lovers betrayed. The paths I followed beyond the letters made clear that guilt and grief continued to wound and sometimes cripple those who remained, long after the war was over." And yet the story that they ultimately add up to-a story that is as emotionally absorbing as a novel, as meticulously documented as the important work of history that it is-not one of mere survival, but inspiration.
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