Having survived World War II, 13-year-old Ota Karel Heller was told to forget everything that happened when he and his parents left for the United States in 1948. Now in his mid-70s with a successful stateside career, Charles Ota Heller — as he is now called — revisits his past with all its blemishes in “Dlouhá cesta domů,” a newly published Czech version of a memoir he originally wrote in English as “Out of Prague: A Memoir of Survival, Denial and Triumph.”
His account of disconnecting and reconnecting with his Jewish and Czech heritage is the culmination of a journey that began after the Velvet Revolution, when Heller started remembering things he had been forced to forget.
While in Prague to promote the book, Heller was still trying to track down his relatives. Bits and pieces of his family’s history are still missing. A similar visit in the early 1990s to Prague’s former Jewish Quarter in Josefov proved decisive for Heller’s coming to terms with his past.
“I remember being there all alone and staring at the wall [listing names of vicitims of the Holocaust],” he said about one of his first visits two decades ago. “It was very emotional — finding my grandmother’s name exactly where I was looking for mine.” ‘I tried to tell myself that I didn’t know. … I just completely blocked these things out.’
Heller lost most of his relatives in the Holocaust. It wasn’t until recently that he’s come to embrace his Jewish heritage — a vital chunk of his life.
“I knew my father was Jewish, but I never thought about the rest of it,” he said. “I tried to tell myself that I didn’t know, but I don’t think that’s completely true because there are many things I could connect. I just completely blocked these things out.”
Child’s eye view
The memoir opens with a recollection that Heller buried deeply. It was only in 2004 that he confided to his mother about when he was 9 years old he had shot a man he thought was a German soldier. Looking back, Heller hopes he had perhaps just wounded the man, who turned out to be a Czech Nazi collaborator. Back then, though, he “felt as if [he] had singlehandedly won the war,” he wrote in his memoir.
Unlike most World War II accounts, Heller presents the conflict from a child’s perspective, where youth’s naivety and the harsh realities of the times blend into unsettling accounts. ‘That’s how I thought about it — I was proud of the fact that my father was fighting the Germans.’
Heller’s father joined the British Army in 1940 and his mother was taken away to a labor camp in 1944 after hiding Ota on a farm where he spent most of the war. He never assumed that any of this had to do with religion.
“Every time something happened — like being thrown out of our home, being told that I’m not allowed to go to school — the reason I was always given by my mother [or] by my great-grandfather was, ‘Your father is fighting against the Germans,’” he said. “And that’s how I thought about it — I was proud of the fact that my father was fighting the Germans, and the fact that I was being deprived of various things, actually rather than suffering, I felt proud that in a way I was helping my father.”
The American dream
The break that Heller has been trying to mend as an adult came in 1948, when he and his parents left for the US. Since Heller’s father served in the British Army, the family was offered immediate asylum in the UK. Heller’s father turned it down, though, and the family spent a year-and-a-half in a refugee camp in the US sector in Germany waiting for a pass to what Heller’s father saw as “the land of opportunity.”
Settling in Morristown, New Jersey, Heller was directed by his parents to forget about the past. Renamed Charlie, he decided to become as American as possible. His family shied away from Czech and Slovak communities and spoke English at home in an attempt to assimilate as much as possible. ‘They told me I could become anything I wanted to be if I worked hard, and it was really true.’
“They told me I could become anything I wanted to be if I worked hard, and it was really true,” Heller said. “They told me I simply had to work harder than the Americans.”
Since starting over, Heller has gone on to become a successful academic, engineer and entrepreneur. He said he’s come to admire his parents for leaving behind their clothing manufacturing firm in Kojetice near Prague and walking to the US sector with two suitcases, bundled-up in blankets, going from wealthy entrepreneurs to minimum-wage laborers.
Speaking for his generation
After 1989, when the US began to take greater interest in Central Europe, Heller became interested in putting his memories down on paper. For a while, he was reluctant to connect his vignettes into a bigger work, doubting that anyone outside of his family would care to read about his experience. His own battle with the past as well as a desire to give a voice to the millions of children who lived in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and whose lives have been shaped by the war eventually drove him to engage in a six-year writing project of more than self-discovery.
While he continues to search for a publisher in the US for the English version of is memoir, Heller’s already working on follow-up books about his life after coming to the US tentatively called “Cowboy of Prague” and “Ready, Fire, Aim: A Tale of Entrepreneurial Terror.”
Martina Čermáková is a Prague-based freelance writer
Dlouhá cesta domů
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