My essay, titled “Something Happened,” just won third place in the 2016 Maryland Writers’ Association writing contest:
SOMETHING HAPPENED by Charles Ota Heller
Something happened to me. I don’t know when; I don’t know how; I don’t know why. I only know that it happened and that it was subtle, yet profound. It changed the way I view the world—and the way I see myself.
It may have taken place as far back as 1990, on my first visit to a free Czechoslovakia, only a few months after its liberation from forty-one years of oppression. Following our harrowing escape from my there in 1949, a mere two weeks after the Communist takeover, I had spent years chasing the proverbial American Dream, all the time suppressing memories of a traumatic boyhood as one of the “hidden children” of the Second World War. Now, viewing the newly-democratic Czechoslovakia in a different light, I was determined to reconnect with my past.
On my third day in Prague, Aunt Aša (not really my aunt, but my mother’s dearest friend) led me to Josefov, the city’s ancient Jewish ghetto. She gripped my hand and guided me through large chambers, the white walls and vaulted ceilings of which were filled with beautifully scribed names.
“There are more than 77,000 names here,” Aša explained. “Czech victims of the Holocaust, listed by their home towns.”
My eyes scanned the walls until they rested on “Kralupy nad Vltavou,” my father’s home town. The name “Hellerová, Otilie” seemed to fly off the wall and slap me in the face. It was my grandmother’s name, and suddenly the enormity of the Holocaust became very personal. I froze in place as I read the names of my great aunt, my great uncle, and my cousins.
I broke away from Aša’s grip and set out in search of my boyhood home. Finally, there it was: “Kojetice u Prahy!” And there was the name—“Neumann, Gustav”—that of my great grandfather. I called him Dědeček and he had been my best friend while we were being sheltered from the Nazis on a farm. I closed my eyes and saw Dědeček standing by the front door with a battered suitcase by his side and a yellow star sewn to his lapel. He was on his way out of my life and ultimately to the Treblinka death camp.
When I opened my eyes, tears blurred the letters of his name. I leaned in closer. Involuntarily, I reached across the railing and ran my finger back-and-forth along the wall.
“What are you doing, Otíku?” asked Aunt Aša quietly, using the diminutive form of my Czech name.
“I don’t know,” I replied, snapping out of a momentary trance.
But I did know. I had been searching for a name: “Heller, Ota Karel,” my full name prior to its Americanization. My mind had played a trick on me. It whispered that I could have—and perhaps should have—been one of the 77,000 victims. Was that the moment that “something” happened to me? Perhaps.
Or it could have been some eight years later on my first visit to Israel. I abandoned our Maryland trade mission one day in order to visit Yad Vashem, a sacred place near Jerusalem where Israelis honor The Righteous: Christians who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.
As I walked along the trees planted in memory of the heroes and read plaques with names from The Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, France, and other occupied nations including the Czech Republic, a sense of guilt began to settle over me.
Where are the Tůmas? I asked myself. Why hadn’t we submitted the names, Vladimír Tůma and Marie Tůmová, to be included among The Righteous? After all, the Czech farmer couple had saved my life by hiding me from the Germans while my Jewish father was fighting with the British army and my Catholic mother suffered in a slave labor camp.
But I am not Jewish, so how could the Tůmas qualify? According to Jewish law, a person is a Jew as long as he or she was born to a Jewish mother. My mother, Ilona, had a Jewish father and a Catholic mother; she was baptized soon after her birth and had been a devout Catholic throughout her life. When I was born, I too, was baptized and worshiped at St. Vitus church in our village until the Nazis’ arrival—and again after the war ended.
In the 1930s, the Germans enacted something called the Nürnberg Laws, which declared (among other definitions) that a person with three Jewish grandparents was a Jew. With only one non-Jewish grandparent, I became—overnight—a Jew. This, despite the fact that Jews themselves would never recognize me as one of them and that, as a Catholic boy living in a happy home of totally secular descendants of Moses and a Christian mother, I did not even know what a Jew was.
The Tůmas saved a Catholic boy, so they wouldn’t be eligible for inclusion among The Righteous, I rationalized in order to assuage my feeling of guilt. However, the thinking process engendered something new: a contemplation of my ethnic roots. This may not have been the moment that “something” happened, but it may have been a start.
It is just as likely that it took place moments later there at Yad Vashem, shortly after I entered an underground cavern. In contrast to the bright sunshine and oppressive heat of the outer gardens, the cavern was dark and cool. The chamber was deathly silent, except for a hushed drone:
Suddenly, I grasped the significance. These were names of thousands of Holocaust victims, read in a continuous recording. Shades of my Prague experience eight years before, I stood mesmerized for more than an hour, listening intently. Why was I crying? Why was I waiting to hear my own name?
During the war, whenever I had asked why I could not leave the farm, why I was not allowed to attend school with my former friends, why I had been stoned in my only foray outside the farm walls, why I was being deprived of my favorite food, the answer was always the same: “because your father is fighting against the Germans.”
Unaware that Mother and the Tůmas had no idea if Papa was even alive, and ignorant of the real truth—that the Nazis were hunting me as a Jew—I took my suffering as a point of pride. If Papa was shooting Germans, I would help him win the war by being brave and silent.
When the war finally ended and my parents and I were reunited, we waited for my great grandfather, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins to return. None did. Although I was now nine years old and vaguely aware of the atrocities the Germans and their collaborators had committed, I failed to connect our loss of twenty-five family members with the cataclysm which would one day be called the Holocaust. Along with Mother, I resumed my life as a church-going Catholic.
After the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia, my parents and I escaped and, following fifteen months in refugee camps, we came to the U.S. When we stepped onto America’s shore, my father ordered me to forget everything that had taken place on the other side of the ocean. He explained that I could only succeed in this country if Americans did not think of me as “someone different.” At the time, I thought this meant simply not speaking and looking like an immigrant—no accent and no funny European clothes. I did as I was told: dressed like an American and spoke without an accent within a year of our arrival.
But Papa may have been thinking beyond that to this country’s anti-Semitic past. No doubt, he had read about the German-American Bund and the Silver Shirts, America’s pro-Nazi organizations of the 1930s and may have been told about workplace quotas, and even hiring prohibitions, of Jews—some of which he would experience personally in the coming years. He may have wanted to shield me from such potential impediments to achieving my American Dream. Accordingly, having driven memories of the war into some deep recess of my soul, there could be no introspection about my roots or my ethnicity.
So, what did happen to me? And how did it happen? I don’t know. For years in America, to my friends, colleagues, teammates, co-workers—indeed, to myself—I was an overreaching immigrant who at various times was a decent student, superb athlete, dedicated teacher, successful entrepreneur, and devoted husband and father. People bestowed a number of awards on me and some called me a “Renaissance Man.”
Long ago, I stopped attending church and, in fact, disavowed all organized religion. I did not need a priest, a minister, an imam, or a rabbi to tell me how to converse with God. And I had no interest in mouthing prayers or singing hymns consisting of words written by others. I had my own voice—my very personal way of worshipping. Yet, something strange must have happened somewhere along the way.
An avid sports fan and former collegiate athlete, I found myself subconsciously checking players’ names and wondering if they were Jewish. Devouring stories about one of baseball’s greatest homerun hitters, Hank Greenberg, and finest pitchers, Sandy Koufax, became a subliminal act, as was cheering for golfers Amy Alcott, Corey Pavin, and Morgan Pressel, and for two of the finest female basketball players of all time, Nancy Lieberman and Sue Bird. I found myself smiling when TV announcers hailed one of their own, Doug Gottlieb, for having once been “Oklahoma State Cowboys’ first Jewish point guard;” I had been a back-up at the same position, at the same university, some thirty years earlier.
Then there was the eighteen-year-old girl from Boston. During the 2012 Summer Olympics, I was furious when the anti-Semites who run the Games once again refused to commemorate the Israeli athletes who had been murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics forty years earlier. It took an American kid named Aly Raisman to make a statement to the world, by performing her gold-medal-winning floor exercise to Hava Nagila. The pony-tailed girl pierced the viewing audience’s veil of ambivalence, showed up the heartless “suits,” and brought me to tears.
Beyond the seemingly trivial realm of sports, I found myself admiring the vast contributions of Jews to society as a whole—in science, medicine, art, music, and literature. I realized that millions of parents are indebted to Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin for discoveries that made it possible for children to grow up without the likelihood of being struck down by polio. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity forever revolutionized physics and mathematics. Marc Chagall’s contributions to the world of art, and those of Franz Kafka, Philip Roth, Hannah Arendt, and Elie Wiesel to literature, struck me as priceless. I connected these achievements with Jewish culture’s emphasis on education.
So, where does all this bring me and what should I make of this recently-discovered love and admiration for—and kinship with—the Jewish people? After all, I have no desire to convert to Judaism, and I relish my independence from all organized religion.
Upon the publication of my first memoir, Prague: My Long Journey Home, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum informed me that I am considered a Holocaust Survivor. I was stunned. While I cherish the honor and am more proud of it than of other accolades and awards that have been bestowed on me, I am simultaneously embarrassed. In recent years, I have accepted many invitations to events attended by other Survivors: at the U. S. Holocaust Museum, at schools, and at conferences. I am discomfited not only because I am generally the lone non-Jew in any group, but even more by the fact that I am often the only, or at best one of two or three, so-called Survivors without tattoos on their arms. After all, I was hidden from the Nazis and survived without having to suffer the unspeakable atrocities experienced by those with fading numbers that forever brand them as true Survivors.
Despite this, I feel an affinity with Jews that I do not have with people of other faiths. It is possible that this feeling has been there throughout my adult life and that it remained below the surface until some epiphany brought it out into the open.
Perhaps that moment came on my second visit to Yad Vashem, in 2003. Walking through the Holocaust museum there, I struggled unsuccessfully to hold back tears while staring at photos of bearded Jews being slapped by German soldiers, naked women being herded into showers of gas, and dead bodies being thrown onto piles of other skeletal figures. I was overcome with grief when I rounded a corner and suddenly came upon a group of Israeli soldiers. Swarthy young men and women in uniform, with Uzis strapped to their backs, they were listening intently to their guide. A force seemed to pull me toward them. I could not understand the guide’s Hebrew lecture, but I did not need to. The sight of the soldiers mesmerized me. They were strong, good-looking, athletic—and tough. I looked from one to the other and felt a strange sense of pride and tranquility. Like the Israelis of biblical times, these Sabras would stand up to any enemy and fight. They would not be led to slaughter like their relatives, and mine, during the Second World War. I wiped my eyes and managed a smile.
It will never happen to us again, I said to myself.
Did I really say “us”? I stopped abruptly when I stepped out into the bright sunshine.
Then, as I walked away and back down the Avenue of The Righteous, I felt a kinship with those soldiers. When I got into the cab that had been waiting for me, I sensed a similar connection to the Israeli driver. I felt relief. I was among people for whom I did not have to whitewash my narrative and from whom I did not have to hide my ethnic background. In the days that followed, I met Israelis to whom I could tell my entire story—the unabridged version, rather than the old party-line rendition. They understood because their own stories were similar. I may not have been able to differentiate a Shabbat from a Pasach, but these descendants of Abraham and I were communicating and connecting at a level far higher than language.
So, does it really matter when that “something” happened? Hardly. Most importantly, I finally stopped hiding from myself.