China, Through the Wandering Eyes of a Czech Jewish WWII Refugee

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Antiluetic cures, littoral pines, huge chaos, self-retained glibness, armies of beggars, mountains of strange shapes, lingering legionnaires, primped-up girls & the atlas of the world.

L-1 translated by Lukas Pribyl October 8, 2008: Dr. Oswald “Valdik” Holzer, a Czech Jewish refugee writing from Ping Ting Hsien, Shanxi, China, to Dr. Miloslav Fabera, a well-known author in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia

6.VI.1940 (June 6, 1940)

Dear Doctor Fabera, [1]

You can’t even know how happy I was to receive your letter; correspondence in Czech really gets to be my only conversation in my mother tongue. The milieu I live in is completely Chinese; Chinese is also my language of communication, and I can use English only rarely, when in contact with American missionaries, and lately also Russian, which I speak with a few fellows who are wandering around in the surroundings and about whom I shall write to you. I beg your pardon if my letter is longer than such dispatches tend to be and if I allow for the dam of my self-retained glibness to burst.

I will answer your letter, when possible, according to individual points (point by point): Czechs are present in the Far East in respectable numbers. However, they are mostly settled in large towns on the coast. There is a large Czech colony in Harbin and in various places in Manchuria. These are either immigrants from Russia, who came here during the time of the revolution, or legionnaires who did not return to the motherland.[2] Next to Škodovácí and Batovci[3] you will find various characters here, from a city policeman in Shanghai to the director of a noodle factory, a makeup artist in the theater in Harbin, the owner of a dry-cleaner’s in Tsing Tao—I could list quite a number of these characters and minor characters from Manzuli to Colombo. But where one doesn’t meet a compatriot? I have already seen a nice-haired beauty bow down in the Blue Mosque in Constantinople and heard her talk in a Prague accent; I ate ice cream at an ice-cream maker, formerly a clerk in the Abyssinia bank in Addis Ababa. I think that you, in your novel, borrowed the address of the only Czech in Peking, Mr. Kara, and put old Hall[4] there, the only difference being that Mr. Kara lives on Kuang An Men Wai and not Way. This wai means “outside” in Chinese; the address thus means that it is outside of the gate (men) of Kuang An (huge, spectacular) and therefore has nothing to do with the English “way.”

Chinese laborers, 1939. Photo by Dr. O. A. Holzer, reproduced with permission from the Holzer Collection.

You have found the place of work in the atlas of the world, and you are interested to know how it looks “here.” Well, the countryside resembles Českomoravská vysočina[5] a bit and in the south rises into a range of over three thousand meters high. (No one has measured it, though.) The scenery is varied and changes its character with every mile; dried-out rivers several miles wide run through deep valleys and form important communication links, on which caravans of donkeys, mares, camels and human carriers travel. The only “road” running south—on which I, by the way, travel with the mission Ford to my affiliated hospital, seventy-two miles distant. This distance takes me six hours. On a donkey, it takes three days. It was built during the great famine in the years 1920 to 1923 by the American Red Cross.[6] Nowadays it mostly serves military convoys, and to travel on it is quite dangerous. On such a trip crossing Shansi, we climb up high to mountain gaps, with mountains of strange shapes with thousands-of-years-old terrace fields planted with soybean and Chinese cereals up to the height of more than two thousand meters. There are no forests; only lonely long-shore (meaning “littoral,” “seaside”) pines with wide treetops and dense bushes diversify the picture. Then the vegetation wanes.

Our sick in the American Brethren Hospital in Ping Ting Hsien, Shanxi Province, we have to rely (count) on even this little benefit, and then it is a line of defense against an army of beggars who would soon fill up our hospital. For the completely penurious we have a missionary committee that covers the fees in necessary cases. Naturally, the hospital and the whole medicinal apparatus receive substantial grants from the US. These are brief notes on the social and medical conditions in my surroundings; I will surely find an opportunity to describe these conditions to you in more detail and commit some interesting stories to paper.

I have already seen a nice-haired beauty bow down in the Blue Mosque in Constantinople and heard her talk in a Prague accent; I ate ice cream at an ice-cream maker, formerly a clerk in the Abyssinia bank in Addis Ababa.

Tsing Tao—or, transcribed into Czech, Cing Tau—is quite a nice town (250,000 inhabitants, but in terms of being palatial, it compares to a Czech town with 15,000 inhabitants). Throughout the whole town, German influence from before the world war is visible. Red roofs of clean little houses surrounded by the greenery of subtropical gardens welcome incomers right out of the port placed in a deep bay surrounded by scenic little hills. A few hundred meters from the port, a lively main boulevard runs parallel to the coast. It is tailored to the Western standard, nicely paved with busy traffic. Northwest of it is the newly built Japanese town with Japanese bazaars,[7] coffee places, tearooms, streets of love from which the clinking Japanese music emanates. In front of the doors to the houses of the geishas there are, nicely lined up, Japanese sandals next to military boots, and inside primped-up girls, both from the islands and from Korea. After 9 p.m., after the tap (night curfew) dies away, the Japanese soldiers and sailors leave, and civilians and the American Navy arrive. Chinese competition is located in several streets adjacent to this district to the southeast. The girls in these, usually several floors’ high buildings, sit at balconies situated into the courtyard and lure customers.[8]

The main street leads into a wide coastal road. On the side facing the sea are beaches (Strand, German, American) with several night cafés where sailors indulge in their wild dances with Portuguese half-breeds from Macau and the Philippines, under the open sky, and Fred Astaire would surely not be ashamed of their feats. On a small peninsula with remnants of German fortifications, there is an international hotel with mostly American clientele. The slopes of seaside hills are dotted by little villas, mostly built by Russian émigrés, to rent them for the summer to guests from Shanghai. About fifty kilometers to the west from here, in the wild mountains, there is the excursion spot Lao Shan, popular among Shanghai Czechs.

Ping Ting surgery, June 1040. Photos by Dr. O. A. Holzer, reproduced with permission from the Holzer Collection.

You wrote to me about a physician who was active in Manchuria. I know a Czech doctor who worked in Mongolia; he is indirectly responsible for my business in the Chinese interior, but completely innocently.

Before the general call-up was announced in September of 1938, I was a physician at the garrison hospital in Mukacevo.[9] We used to sit in the evenings in the Mukacevo Czillag[10] and shared various doctors’ stories. But how could we contribute anything better than Lieutenant Colonel B. Ulman, who walked through Mongolia with a syringe and a few vials of Neosalvarsan?[11] (Lieutenant colonel B. U. was the chief of the division of Czechoslovak Red Cross in Sub-Carpathian Russia.) Then the mobilization arrived and spread us over all appendices of the Republic; an event followed an event; we got wartime experience. I bandaged Hungarian terrorists under machine-gun fire at Dercen, was present during when they were interrogated at Palanok, saw how the border villages were shot up to pieces; I sat at all these Podkarpatskych nests, but naturally all this was not known in Prague. Finally in March of ’39 I was with MPO 2[12] in Pol’ana by Svalava, and I underwent that infamous withdrawal to Slovakia and finally arrived to Prague.[13] I forgot about Dr. Ulman’s stories. In September ’39 I became the chief of the emergency room of the American Red Cross for Chinese refugees in Shanghai. I had my medical office and hope to become a doctor in vogue. Suddenly in December I was offered a position in the interior, and then I remembered the stories from Czillag, and at that moment all those Dr. Ulman’s tales found their successors.

I am really looking forward to your next book, and I thank you for sending it to me. I only beg you to mail to the address O.A.H.-P.O. Box 1591 Shanghai, where my valuable mail is directed to.

I know a Czech doctor who worked in Mongolia; he is indirectly responsible for my business in the Chinese interior, but completely innocently.

And now to your questions: in terms of transcribing Manchurian titles, it is hard to offer advice; a huge chaos rules in this so-called Romanization. I believe the Czech Oriental Institute introduced Czech Romanization, but the best person to advise you would be Dr. Jaroslav Prusek.[14] I don’t know him personally, but my friends in Peking, sinologists, told me about him and valued him very highly.

Only red mountain roses cover the rocks in places, such strange mixtures of minerals of all geological stratum, with a generally lateral black strip signifying where the coal reached the surface of the earth. And what kind of coal—the best anthracite lies here at one’s easy reach, iron ores and who knows what else—but there are no roads to take them away, and the deposits that lie near the railroad are so plentiful that it simply doesn’t pay to transport minerals from so afar. This winter I paid seventy cents for coal in Liao (i.e., about 1.10 Czech Crowns). The social conditions are according to that.

The populace lives on a desperately low standard of living; the average income is equal to several cents a day, in that I refer you to Buck’s novels,[15] which cogently describe the life in the interior. Recently the monetary politics also added up to all this, of both of the warring camps, whose victims are only those small peasants who toil the poor fields their whole lives. For years the country has been ravaged by wars, by seditious generals, predatory hordes (bandits) and, finally, by the third year between Kuomintan[16] and Japan. The so-called culture entered the Chinese interior in the form of kerosene lamps, tin cans and, as of late, dive-bombers. Even though the population in places feignedly accepted the Christian faith, they did not leave their superstitions and resist our doctrine regarding hygiene and all sanitation efforts.

Peking Valdik. Photo by Dr. O. A. Holzer, reproduced with permission from the Holzer Collection.

Social diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis are widespread to a terrible extent; only a few individuals can be found here who are spared from having one of those. Infectious diseases: typhus, typhoid fever, dysentery, cholera, leprosy, etc. It rages mercilessly. Sanitation is prevented not only by the atrocious hygienic conditions in dwellings, but also the mentality of the populace. The Chinese call it “Pu ya jin dy fa dza”; I would translate it in the Prague way as “Nothing matters.” I will provide you with an example from the hospital: so, a Grandma with her grandchild comes to my infantile ward (the sick very often send someone else for them to the doctor; mothers send their mothers-in-law, and so on). The child has a huge depression of the brain, probably after an incompetent delivery. I am trying to explain the graveness of the illness; the bleary eyed hack looks at me and finally states, “Tha sz la pu ya jin”—“Doesn’t matter if it dies”—and leaves. A sick person with a bad case of tuberculosis is coaxed, after much persuasion, to open the window of the room, filled with completely thick non-breathable air. However, the moment I am finished with my round [he] closes the window again, as home ghosts would leave. No one can manage to get him to come out to the balcony to join the other patients ill with tuberculosis, since they are not of his social class. I could list hundreds of such cases to you. Otherwise the sick come to the hospital quite gladly with confidence that they will be helped, but behind your back, they will also seek out—before and after—an Indigenous healer who can either help or screw things up. Particularly with the treatment of syphilis, if they have money, they come for treatment regularly and submit to our decrees.

You are asking where we keep our medicines and instruments. In all larger cities, it is possible to purchase products of almost all nations. However, with the current exchange rate, imported products are unattainably expensive for us; therefore goods of mostly Japanese and Chinese provenience are bought. They are quite satisfactory, even though the quality cannot compare. Chinese medical instruments are quite good (of Western style) and cost one-tenth of what the imported ones do. The pharmaceutical industry, as far as simple medicines are concerned, also suffices. We usually supply ourselves with necessities for a longer time, when we purchase things personally in the city, and then we take the goods with us in ironbound boxes; my last caravan had fourteen huge crates full of goods and necessities. We also get some medicaments directly from the US from various benefactors. Sometimes the shipments are a bit humorous. So, for example, one hospital received, from a producer of rubber goods, sixty hot-water bottles. It was a small hospital with only twenty beds; they shared them with all hospitals around. We were given three barrels of fish oil, so we prescribe it busily now. One aunty from America sent us a vat of chloroform, some association in Shanghai ripped up many bedsheets, etc. And so we survive on human charity, but the most expensive items, like Neosalvarsan, etc., we need to buy, and request money from our desperately poor patients. Everyone has to pay in the hospital, even though these fees are laughably small (a month-long stay, twenty-four Crowns; antiluetic cure, 12.-; a shot of calcium, -.30 hellers). But for a Chinese coolie or a small farmer, these prices are staggering, with the amount skyrocketing.

In front of the doors to the houses of the geishas there are, nicely lined up, Japanese sandals next to military boots, and inside primped-up girls, both from the islands and from Korea.

To help you understand the areas, if you send me the exact geographical measurements, I think I can get you the special maps in Shanghai or Tientsin.

About the political situation in Manchuria—I will send it to you as soon as I receive an answer from my friends, settled in those parts and to whom I am simultaneously writing. They are American missionaries who have been living in Manchuria and Mongolia for thirty years.

Finally, one nice incident that happened to me several days ago: several miles from us a new road is being built, under Japanese supervision. Since there is fighting going on in this region, the engineers have a team of Russian bodyguards for their protection.

I am sitting in my office, it is about two in the afternoon and I am reading some papers. Suddenly someone knocks, which is really very unusual, because the Chinese burst in without knocking, and in the door appears a white man in khaki, and he isn’t exactly clean and groomed. Once I already had such a character in the hospital and then the secret that I can speak Russian gave away, so I immediately started talking.

I bandaged Hungarian terrorists under machine-gun fire at Dercen, was present during when they were interrogated at Palanok, saw how the border villages were shot up to pieces; I sat at all these Podkarpatskych nests, but naturally all this was not known in Prague.

About twenty-year-old youngster, blond fluff on his chin, he was clutching his cap in his hands; he wasn’t rushing in from the door and was only smiling at me. He let me disgorge questions for a while and then says, “Hey, please, I ain’t sick, but I was told there is a Czech doc here, so I came around to see ya.” I stayed as stiff as after polio since that chap spoke Czech, but this strange Czech with a touch of Russian. “I am Vejvoda (my name is Vejvoda),” he says. “My daddy left fifteen years ago for Prague. He wrote me once and then nothing. I wanted to ask you, where should I write to reach him and how to talk to him?” And so he was telling me all this and all his stories, and I could already see he was speaking in Russian a bit more than in Czech. He is from Harbin, and he is working as one of these bodyguards—but I was happy to have a chat in this mixture at least. Finally, he spat out that he does have a “pain,” the one that’s always talked about last.[17]

I beg your pardon for misusing your patience so much and so I better end this for now.

My sincere regards, and I wish you a new success.



When Orlando Business Journal Business Woman of the Year Joanie Holzer Schirm retired in 2008 from thirty-five years in the business of engineering, she thought all was finished for her in the spotlight. Then, as a nonfiction author, she discovered a new chapter had just begun. Gathering stories from across the globe, Joanie’s first book, Adventurers Against Their Will, won the 2013 Global eBook Award for Best Biography. Her second, My Dear Boy, was a memoir finalist for the 2020 Foreword Review Indies Book of the Year Award. And in 2021, her third book, Steadfast Ink, gained international attention with stories from Bohemia to China to South and North America. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s 2020 Emerging Travel Writers’ Prize.

Lead image: Ravi Sharma

  1. Miloslav Fábera was a Czech writer and scriptwriter (1912–1988). At one point he was the director of the Czech Film Studios (1970s). His writing was much inspired by the adventures written down in the diaries of his father, a soldier and legionnaire. He had a passion for Asia, which was often manifested in his work. He collaborated with some well-known Czech filmmakers, though his writing during Communist times was often quite biased, as the regime required.Literally: Mr. Doctor Fabera. Please see the letter L-3 for a full set of footnotes regarding this man and his work.
  2. Regarding Miloslav Fabera, see my footnotes in letter L-3.There were whole Czech villages in Czarist Russia. Most of these people left there between 1860 and 1880, lured by offer of very cheap agricultural land. Most of them settled in Volhynia, a territory that was later divided between Poland and Ukraine. There was heavy fighting there during WWI, as well as the Russian civil war between Whites and Reds following the revolution, as well as the Russo-Polish war. That’s when a number of them left and got all the way to China. The legionnaires were Austro-Hungarian soldiers of Czech extraction who were taken POW by the Czarist army during WWI, and then, when the revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, formed a legion that partly fought the Reds, but mostly fought to return home. They went back home by ships from Vladivostok. (They actually conquered most of Siberia to be able to make it back.) It took them two years. Some of the legionnaires, however, stayed behind. This legion later became the backbone of the newly created Czechoslovak army.
  3. Employees of two huge Czech factories. Skoda was one of the largest European producers of armaments and cars, and Bata was a huge shoe factory. Both had branches abroad, as well as a lot of employees working abroad.
  4. Character in Miloslav Fabera’s book.
  5. A large, hilly region on the border between the historic lands of Bohemia and Moravia.
  6. There is a reasonably large amount of published sources (mostly articles) on this famine in the American press, since Americans were heavily involved in alleviating it.
  7. Markets.
  8. There is a book on prostitution in China in the first third of the twentieth century, by Sue Gronewold, called Beautiful Merchandise.
  9. A large city in the then-Czechoslovak Sub-Carpathian Russia (1919 to 1939). Now a part of Ukraine. Sub-Carpathian Russia was first part of Austria-Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, and then became autonomous Carpathian Ukraine. In 1939 it was occupied by Hungary, then it became part of the USSR and since 1991 has been part of independent Ukraine.
  10. “Csillag” means “star” in Hungarian—either it was the name of a place (a pub or hotel called Star, for example), or it can also mean “under an open sky,” “under stars.” But I am not sure—would have to do some research on this.
  11. A drug used by the military to treat syphilis, but because of its many side effects was later replaced by penicillin.
  12. I think this was a motorized reconnaissance unit (Motorizovaný předzvědný oddíl).
  13. With the imminent dismemberment of the First Czechoslovak Republic, the heavily Hungarian region of Sub-Carpathian Russia fought to be included in Hungary. It was an area of a largely forgotten war between the Hungarian insurgents (terrorists), heavily supported with weapons from Hungary, and the Czech military.
  14. Dr. Jaroslav Průšek. A world-renowned Czech Orientalist whose work focused mostly on Japan and China.
  15. Pearl S. Buck, an American novelist who grew up in China. A Pulitzer winner and the first American female recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. Most of her writing deals with China.
  16. Kuomintang—Chinese pro-Communist forces, later fully Communist, that later became the founding stone of the Chinese army.
  17. Sexually transmitted disease.
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