Author Charles Ota Heller’s early childhood in Czechoslovakia was idyllic, but his safe and happy world didn’t last long, Three years after his birth, Germany forced an occupation of his country; afterward, most of his young life consisted of running and hiding. His life, just like those of the other youths who lived in Europe during the late 1930s and early 1940s, was shaped forever by the dangers, horrors, and unsettling events he experienced.
In this memoir, Heller, born Ota Karel Heller, narrates his family’s story—a family nearly destroyed by the Nazis. Son of a mixed marriage, he was raised a Catholic and was unaware of his Jewish roots, even after his father escaped to join the British army and fifteen members of his family disappeared.
Prague: My Long Journey Home tells of his Christian mother being sent to a slave labor camp and of his hiding on a farm to avoid deportation to a death camp. With the war coming to a close, Heller tells of how he picked up a revolver and shot a Nazi when he was just nine years old.
Heller, now an assimilated American, left the horrors of the past—along with his birth name—behind to live the proverbial American Dream. In his memoir, he recalls how two cataclysmic events following Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution brought him face-to-face with demons of his former life. On his personal journey Heller discovered and embraced his heritage—one which he had abandoned decades earlier.
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PRAGUE: MY LONG JOURNEY HOMEA Memoir of Survival, Denial, and Redemption
By CHARLES OTA HELLER
Abbott PressCopyright © 2011 Charles Ota Heller
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKde domov muj? (Where Is My Home?)
I pulled out a Walther revolver and shot a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Nazi in the waning days of the Second World War. I rejoiced as his female companion screamed in hated German from the doorway. In that triumphant moment, I felt as though I had won the war singlehandedly and taken revenge for six years of cruelty inflicted by the Germans on my country and my family, and for forcing me to hide like an animal. I was nine years old. It is now forty-five years later and I replay this scene in my mind as I look out the airplane window at a familiar countryside.
I am coming back to Czechoslovakia. It is 1990, a half-year after the nearly bloodless coup called the "Velvet Revolution," which has brought freedom to a country that was once my home, but one that I had forced into the recesses of my mind during my forty-one years in America. As the airplane banks into a left-hand turn, the port wing dips. I press my nose against the window. In the distance, past the green fields, I see the silhouettes of the church steeples of Prague. The pilot follows the track of a thin black snake of a road. I am startled. It's the Melník highway! Suddenly, I feel a desperate and unexpected need and, with my index finger, trace a line on the window, following back toward the airplane's tail and along the road through two small towns. I am searching for a place I once loved. There it is – Kojetice! Only a couple of inches wide from this altitude, but I recognize it, and the memories come rushing at me. I am coming back to the home of my birth.
I see myself as three-year-old Ota Karel Heller. I am riding in the back seat of my father's Tatra convertible, with the top down. I laugh at the way Papa's curly, blond hair rises and falls in front of me like waves in a wheat field. I love the way the rushing air blows my own hair and forces me to squint. I lift my arms and let the wind fill my sleeves until they look like fat sausages. Papa and I are returning to Kojetice from one of our monthly shopping trips to Prague, only ten miles away from where we live. As always, he has bought me magazines which contain comic strips with my favorite characters – Shirley Temple, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck – all in Czech, of course. Additionally, Papa has selected a couple of American films with Czech subtitles, which he will project for the villagers in the Sokol Hall. I hope that at least one will be a western, starring my cowboy hero, Tom Mix, and his wonder horse, Tony.
The Melník highway is an asphalt two-lane road which, immediately after leaving the outskirts of the city, enters a countryside of farms, forests, and prominent rock outcroppings. It is summer and I watch the fields of barley, hops, and corn roll by. I take deep breaths to inhale the sweet smell of freshly-cut wheat.
After passing through two small towns, we leave the motorway and turn right onto a dirt road leading to our 900-year-old village, population of a little more than 800. We are greeted by a sign, "Kojetice." The name on this sign would change three times in the future and become a reflection of the twentieth-century history of Czechoslovakia. Just one year later, the Germans would rename the village and change the sign to "Kojetitz." After the war, our so-called "liberators," the Red Army, would write it in Cyrillic letters, such that it would read "Koetue."
We drive past more fields before coming upon the first houses. On both sides of the road are cottages whose occupants work for the farms located on the other side of Kojetice or for our family's clothing company, the region's largest employer. The cottages are small, cozy, and pretty. Some are made of brick and others of concrete. Grapevines climb up their white plaster walls. The tile roofs are red or brown, sometimes gray, and swallows build their nests beneath the overhangs. Czechs believe that fences do make for good neighbors, and each cottage is surrounded by a high wall. Most homes have beautiful flower gardens, with red and white roses and greenish-white, fragrant, mignonettes. In the back of each cottage is a fruit and vegetable garden, where radishes, peas, gooseberries, and currants grow. Often, an apple, pear or cherry tree provides shade on warm summer days. Some of the homes we pass belong to our family and are rented to company employees. The Neumanns (my mother's side of the family) and Hellers also own houses and other properties which they contribute to the community for recreational and cultural activities.
Driving toward the center of town, we pass the railroad station where trains going to and from Prague stop throughout the day and night. Just past the station, on the right side, stands a small hotel housing the town's only pub. Men gather here after work and on weekends to drink Pilsner beer, discuss politics and sports, and play mariás, their favorite card game. Occasionally, Papa allows me to come in and watch.
The main street, lined with tall linden trees, passes several small side streets, turns right and begins a slow descent past a park on the right. The highlight of each year is pout' – a carnival which marks the end of harvest and brings hundreds of celebrants from surrounding villages to the park. As I gaze at the empty green space, I imagine the rides and the games and, most of all, the circus with its elephants, lions, and tigers – animals so much more exotic than the horses, cows, and oxen to which we are accustomed.
Past the park and on the same side, the butcher shop stands, with a pig, sliced longitudinally in half, hanging outside the door. The smell of sausages and salami strung outside the shop window is tantalizing, and I cannot wait to get home as my mouth waters for lunch. A road leading to the nearby industrial town of Neratovice bears off to the left as we continue our journey. Just past the turn-off rises a high wall that eventually melds into the outbuildings surrounding Zámek ("Castle"), which is how everyone refers to the mysterious mansion in the center of this large estate, a white chateau with a red roof and several towers, built in a baroque style by the nobleman who once owned all of the surrounding land. An enormous gate, through which horse-drawn wagons can pass, opens to a tunnel running through the outbuildings and leads to the large, lush, wooded grounds.
Just up the hill and on the opposite side of the street sits our next-door neighbors' farm. The Tumas' house, barns, and stables are hidden by a high brick wall. The small pedestrian gate and the large one for animals and wagons both are made of heavy wood with rural scenes carved by a local artist.
Further uphill and across the street from our factory and home, the village centerpiece, the church of St. Vitus, stands on the same spot it has stood since 1271. This Roman Catholic house of worship has a special meaning to our mixed-religion family because both Mother and I were christened there, and I am one of the few privileged boys given the honor of pumping the huge pedal powering the pipe organ located on the balcony, although I am too small to do it without help. Occasionally, the priest even selects me to help pull the rope that rings the bell, calling the villagers to Sunday Mass. That is the ultimate thrill and distinction. Next to the church stands the post office, in a house owned by my great-uncle Ota Neumann, the mayor, who has loaned it to the village.
Below the church and across the street from our home is the elementary school, which I look forward to attending soon, and immediately behind it is one of my favorite places to hang out. Here, my godfather, Karel Subrt, has his blacksmith shop. I spend hours sitting in the corner, watching him heat pieces of steel until they are glowing red, shape them into horseshoes, and then reheat them before putting them on a horse's foot. I follow him outside and am mesmerized by the sight, smell and loud sizzle when he lifts the horse's leg and applies the red-hot horseshoe to the hoof. Smoke rises from the foot and the hot odor of burning hoof is pungent and overpowering.
Up the hill above the church stands a monument to the village's fallen war heroes. It honors Kojetice citizens who died in the First World War.
As we approach home, I spot the tops of trees marking my favorite place of all, the woods on a hill above Kojetice, which we call Skalky. The name derives from the Czech word for "boulder," and for good reason. Among the hundreds of evergreen and birch trees are large outcroppings of shale, which make great hiding places when my friends and I play cowboys and Indians. The woods are dark and mysterious, and entering them is like stepping on a thick carpet, with many years' collection of dry pine needles and soft, green moss covering the ground. After a rain, bumps in the otherwise smooth groundcover reveal newly-grown mushrooms. My parents and I often join the villagers as we scatter through the forest in a hunt for the source of one of the Czech cuisine's most treasured delicacies.
Now we are at home. Our factory lies up the hill. The front building has a clothing store on the ground floor and our living quarters on the second. A large sign adorns the outside, with the original name of the business, that of my great-grandfather, Gustav Neumann, as well as the current English name of the firm, Labor, indicating that, in addition to women's dresses, it manufactures men's work clothes.
Over the top of the third-story window, under the center eave and sculpted in concrete, is our family emblem, the mountain Ríp – a monadnock famous in the history of the Czech nation, and even more endearing to our family because my late great-grandmother, Luisa, had been born at its base. It is said that the forefather of the Czech nation – named Cech – surveyed the surrounding countryside from the top of Ríp and declared: "This is the promised land, rich in game and fowl, overflowing with sweet honey." Thus, says the legend, our nation was born. The mountain's double connection to my family has become a point of pride to the Neumanns and the Hellers.
Behind the factory grows a two-acre garden, full of delicious fruits and vegetables. As much as my pals and I enjoy picking and eating cherries, currants, gooseberries, and peaches there, we find it much more exciting to sneak over the wall into the garden of the parish house next door and to steal similar fruits from our neighbor, Father Erhard, the priest, who chases us with a stick as we clamber back over the high wall.
My family lives in a huge, luxuriously furnished, apartment with contemporary blond, Danish furniture, crystal chandeliers, and original oils and watercolors of Prague and the Czech countryside. Upon entering, we put on our pantofle (slippers), following the Czech tradition of removing shoes as soon as one enters a home, and we walk along the shiny parquet floor. The sun's rays are reflected and refracted by the chandeliers' glass to create a strange psychedelic show that I find hypnotic. Prominent in the great room is a black grand piano on which my mother often plays pieces by Czech composers, Bedrich Smetana and Antonín Dvorák. My favorite is Má Vlast, Smetana's cycle of symphonic poems. Mother, who plays it with exquisite feeling, has explained to me that he wrote it in 1879 when he was deaf and that it is a musical description of our Czech lands. I am particularly fond of the Vltava (Moldau) piece which follows the river from its source in the Sumava mountains to Prague and eventually to its confluence with Labe (Elbe) in nearby Melník, the capital of our district.
Papa takes my hand as we enter the dining room. Mother is sitting at the head of the table. Her brown eyes twinkle when she sees us. As always, I feel a warmth flow through my body when I hug her and she kisses me on the lips. My great-grandfather (Dedecek) is seated to her right. He smiles at me when I stroke his perfectly trimmed gray beard before I kiss his cheek. His sons, my grandfather (Deda) and my great-uncle (Strejda), are sitting on Mother's left. Both have black hair and black mustaches; I have trouble telling them apart, but I do not admit this to anyone. I give each a peck on the cheek and they smile and pat me on the head. All three Neumanns – Gustav, Artur, and Ota – are dressed in dark three-piece suits and ties; our family meals are formal occasions. Mother rushes over to embrace and kiss Papa, as I admire them and feel very proud to be the son of the most beautiful lady and the most admired man in our region.
"Welcome home, travelers," says Mother with a smile. My father and I sit down in the two empty chairs. We say "dobrou chut'" ("good appetite"), and I tackle my favorite Czech delicacy: knedliky (Czech bread dumplings) with eggs and ham, prepared by Tonicka Rezácová, our cook. I feel warm and comfortable in this large, brightly-lit room surrounded by members of my family who make it no secret that they love me and love and respect one another. At the same time, over the past few weeks, as we have sat down at meals, the looks behind the smiles on their faces have worried me. Something is wrong. The usual laughter and happy talk is shadowed by something I do not know – something I fear.
For a moment, my thoughts jump to the present. I am back on the airplane, which is less than half-full. People are not flying in 1990 because a rash of recent hijackings has created a global fear of air travel. The empty spaces around me exacerbate my own loss. I long to fill the vacant seats with my loved ones. Sadly, all but Mother are dead – and she is unable to travel. I take one last look at the black snake of a highway before we begin our descent into Prague's Ruzyn airport. My heart and mind juggle time as my past rises before my eyes. Once again, I am a nine-year-old child, holding a loaded revolver thrown away by one of thousands of escaping German soldiers at the end of the war. I have found it in a ditch. With it, I shoot an escaping Nazi standing not far from me as I crouch in the bushes. I am elated and think this act of revenge will erase forever the nightmare of the war. But now, back in the airplane, I know how wrong I had been. Children of war are sentenced to lives filled with memories and nightmares.
* * *
Although I was born in Prague, my boyhood home was in this ancient village of Kojetice, the history of which dates back to the year 1070. My early childhood was idyllic. Although my parents were strict disciplinarians who tried to keep me grounded, it was difficult for me to feel "normal." After all, none of my friends had nannies watching over them, cooks preparing their food or servants waiting on them. And as the only child at the crossing point of the Neumann and Heller families, I was the center of attention in our male-dominated household: Dedecek, Deda, Strejda, and my father, whom I called Tatínek. But, life in this safe and happy world would not last long. My first half-formed notions that things were different came in the fall of 1939, when I was three.
It was a Sunday at church. As Mother and I emerged from the darkness of St. Vitus, I blinked when the bright sunlight hit my eyes. Mass was over. I was happy to be free to spend the rest of the day playing with my toys on the roof above the sewing rooms of the family's factory. I was even happier when I saw my great-grandfather standing near the church gate, waiting for us.
Dedecek was my favorite relative, despite the fact that I was three and he was seventy-nine. When we were together, we were unaware of the difference in our ages. This venerable patriarch, with gray hair, gray beard, and wireless spectacles was revered by all, but to me he was just a buddy who would get down on the floor in his three-piece gray suit and play with me for hours, and who would tell me stories of faraway places he had seen. I loved him dearly, but I would not have him in my life for long.
Excerpted from PRAGUE: MY LONG JOURNEY HOME by CHARLES OTA HELLER Copyright © 2011 by Charles Ota Heller. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1. Kde domov muj? (Where Is My Home?)....................1
CHAPTER 2. Heart of Europe....................10
CHAPTER 3. Czech Families Neumann and Heller....................21
CHAPTER 4. Occupation: The Nazi Circle....................29
CHAPTER 5. Persecution....................42
CHAPTER 6. Survival....................59
CHAPTER 7. Catholics and Nazis....................75
CHAPTER 8. Papa's War....................85
CHAPTER 9. Revenge and Liberation....................96
CHAPTER 10. Short-Lived Freedom....................114
CHAPTER 11. Escape....................142
CHAPTER 12. Refugees....................146
CHAPTER 13. America, the Beautiful....................168
CHAPTER 14. Fateful Eights....................190
CHAPTER 15. Gray Side of Iron Curtain....................198
CHAPTER 16. On the Wings of Denial....................214
CHAPTER 17. Coming Full Circle....................224