In the last days of World War II, nine-year-old Ota Heller picked up a revolver and fired it at a German soldier. He did not wait to see if the man was still alive. For decades afterwards he talked to no one about the experience, and only recently has Ota Heller – or Charles Ota Heller, as he is now called – felt able to return to his memories of the war, collecting them in his book “Out of Prague”. In this week’s Czech Books he talks to David Vaughan.
Now in his mid seventies, Charles Ota Heller has had a highly successful career in the United States, where he and his parents fled from communist Czechoslovakia in 1948. He was twelve at the time, and his parents were determined to put their past behind them, having lost nearly all their relatives in the Holocaust. With his new name, Charles went on to become an American success story, an athlete, academic, engineer and entrepreneur – and also a father and grandfather. He would never speak of his childhood experiences as a half Jewish boy hiding from the Nazis in a village near Prague.
With the fall of communism in 1989 everything changed, culminating in the publication of “Out of Prague”. This week saw the launch of the Czech translation, “Dlouhá cesta domů” and I asked Charles Ota Heller to tell me more about how the book came about.
“Americans began in 1989 to get interested in this small country in Central Europe, and then they put two things together – realizing that I really did come from there – and started asking me questions. As they asked questions, I actually started remembering some of the things. People would say: ‘You’ve got to write a book!’ Of course, having friends and neighbours telling you that you need to write a book, doesn’t mean that there really is a book there. But I began writing just short stories and vignettes that had taken place, and it was amazing how memories began to come back to me. In the middle of the night I would remember things that happened to me when I was four or five years old that I didn’t think it was possible to remember.”
Did you have some kind of Proustian moment when it suddenly all came flooding back?
“I did. The first time I came back was in 1990. It was to a conference here. My first night I couldn’t sleep, so I put my clothes on and walked up to Prague Castle. I was there, completely alone, at the cathedral, and suddenly it just hit me how much this country had been through and how few years the people had actually been free. And I broke down. I got on my knees and started to cry. Just kneeling there all alone in the middle of the night – it was about midnight – it suddenly hit me that I’m still Czech.”
“Yes, it did. And that’s when those thoughts started coming back. I had driven all those things out of my mind, and all those stories – and some of the hardships – began to come back to me at that point, and I started writing them down as I remembered them.”
Tell me a little of the story.
“I was born in 1936, three years before the occupation. My father was Jewish, my mother was Catholic – actually my mother’s father was Jewish and her mother was Catholic – so I actually had three Jewish grandparents. But I didn’t know that. My great-grandfather started a clothing factory and was very successful. We were quite wealthy. I lived with my parents, my great-grandfather, my grandfather and his brother. We celebrated Christmas, we celebrated Easter, it was just as though we were a Catholic family. And that’s what I thought we all were.”
And you were only three when the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia began. After that you must have had no choice than to be aware of your Jewish origin.
“Actually, no. I was not aware, because my father escaped in 1940, to join the British army, eventually, after he was arrested in Belgrade. They were forming the Czechoslovak Division of the British army in Palestine, and he joined there, fought with Montgomery in North Africa and so forth. And then my grandfather and his brother also escaped. It turned out that they were killed in Yugoslavia by the Germans. Just my mother and my great-grandfather stayed behind. Eventually the Germans came and they took the factory and our home, and we moved in with some farmer friends in the village of Kojetice. Then things began to happen. I wondered why did we have to move out, why was I not allowed to go to school when my friends started to go to school? And the answer was always the same from my mother: because your father is fighting against the Germans. So I had no idea that it had anything to do with my Jewish heritage or any religious background. To me it was always: because your father is fighting against the Germans.”
“My mother worked on the farm where we were living. She worked every day. She was a fine lady, brought up to be a lady – she went to the English School in Prague and never worked. She had a cook and I had nannies when I was a little boy, but suddenly my mother was a field hand, working seven days a week. And my great-grandfather was taken away to a concentration camp, which was a very traumatic experience for me, because he had become my best friend. I had no one else and he was 82 years old. Eventually the Germans took the farm away from the farmers with whom we were staying, and they moved into a larger farm where other farmers were gathered and essentially living in a dormitory. It was a place where all the villagers called the ‘Castle’, or ‘Zámek‘, and that’s where we lived. Then my mother was taken away towards the end of the war in 1944 to a slave-labour camp for Christian wives of Jewish men. The Germans wanted to take me along, I found out later, but my mother hid me at that point with the farmers. So I was hidden at the Castle. That’s where I was when the war ended.
“While I was hidden there, we heard rumours that the war was coming to an end, but we all found it hard to believe. Here is an extract from my book that describes a traumatic event for me as the war was ending:”
Finally, I swallowed hard and carefully drew the Walther from my belt. Getting on my feet, cocking the pistol, and assuming a two-handed pose I had seen in American cowboy movies before the war, I aimed at the blond-haired man's chest. I squeezed the trigger. Bam!! The noise was ear-shattering. The pistol recoiled and flew out of my hand, and I was propelled into the bushes.
"You got him!" screamed Pepik.
I crawled out of the bush and, sure enough, the man was lying on the ground. Leaving the gun behind, I took off running as fast as I could toward the farmhands' dormitory, with my companions running in different directions. I hid behind the building which had been my sanctuary and waited for what seemed like hours, with my heart pounding wildly. Amazingly, no one followed us. After an initial crush of fear, I experienced an adrenaline rush unlike any I had ever felt before.
"I killed a German," I screamed silently. "I killed a German!"
I did not know if I had really killed him, but I hoped that I had. In that splendid moment, I felt as if I had singlehandedly won the war. For most of my young life, I had been running and hiding from Germans. Now, finally, I had struck back. I had taken revenge for everything they had done to me -- for taking my family from me, for stealing our home and all our possessions, for forcing me to hide like an animal, for desecrating my beloved Czechoslovakia. I was nine years old -- and I vowed to keep my triumph a secret.
It would be many years later -- after finally revealing the secret to family and a few friends -- that I would receive startling information which would make me wonder: whom did I shoot that day in May 1945?
So what was the startling information?
“I spoke to the chronicler of our village of Kojetice, whose name is Jaroslav Kučera. He has been very carefully writing the history of the village up to today. I actually sent him the story and asked him if he knew who the person was that I shot. He informed me that it could not have been a German soldier, because by that time the German soldiers were gone, but there were Czech collaborators who were living in the places where the boys and I were in the bushes. He is quite certain that the man that I shot was a Czech Nazi collaborator, who, with his wife, was escaping to Germany. And he also said that I could not have killed him, because it is a small village and if somebody is shot and killed in a village like that, everyone knows about it. They heard that somebody had been shot and hurt, but not that he was killed. So all those years I lived with the thought that I killed a German soldier, but I had wounded a Czech…”
I cannot imagine what it feels like as a small child being in that position – of shooting somebody…
“All those years when I felt that I really had killed a German soldier, I felt very good about it. However, I was afraid to talk to anyone about it. I didn’t tell my parents, because I thought maybe I had committed a criminal act. After all, people are killed in war, but not by little civilian boys. So I kept it to myself and I never told my father. So my father died without ever knowing. I did tell my mother eventually, two years before she died.”
It must have been a bit of a shock.
“It was a shock for my mother. My mother had a look of absolute shock on her face. Then she looked at me and said: ‘You did well,’ and patted me on the shoulder and kissed me.”
Yet the soldier you thought you had shot was also some mother’s son.
“That’s true, but somehow I never thought about it that way. I had such a hatred for the Germans as well as for the Czechs who collaborated with them that I didn’t think of them really as human beings.”
And what about now that you know what probably really happened.
“I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I wish that I had killed a German soldier. On the other hand, I guess that I’ve begun some process of forgiveness and I’m glad that I didn’t kill anyone. Maybe I just wounded him and probably he’s okay if he’s still alive today.”
Of course, you don’t even know that, do you? It is even possible that he was not a collaborator.
“I’ve thought about that. Since Mr Kučera told me what he thinks that the true story was, I’ve thought about that possibility, so I think that’s quite unlikely, because, first of all, normal Czechs, who were not collaborators, didn’t have access to vehicles and this man was packing a truck. And this was the first week in May 1945 and he was packing furniture. Obviously he was leaving town. People weren’t leaving at that time unless they had something to do with the Germans.
“I did this all of my own free will, so I was totally responsible for what I did. I was proud of it, in my own silent way I was proud of myself, especially when my father came home – even though I never told my father. My father to me was a hero when he arrived in that British uniform.”
What do you think he would have said?
“I don’t think he would have been proud of me.”
Do you feel that writing this book has been a catharsis, in a sense?
“In a way it has been a catharsis, but at the same time it was very painful. Some of the memories were extremely painful. They were ones that I had suppressed for a very long time. But many things happened in the process of writing the book and probably the main thing that happened to me was that I gained even more respect for my parents than I ever had, because of what they went through. And even after all they went through in World War II, then two-and-a-half years later escaping from the communists and leaving this country with absolutely nothing, and starting from nothing in America, and living normal lives, it’s something I can’t even imagine at this point – what they accomplished and what they did for me.”