Telling His Life Story
Charlie Heller flipped on the television to unwind after a long day.
The Tonight Show Host Jay Leno was luring University of Michigan students into showing their ignorance. When was World War II? Who was President during the war? When Leno asked, “Who were the Allies?” one student answered that the U.S. and the Germans teamed up against the Russians.
Heller nearly fell off his chair.
How could these kids be unaware of the cataclysm that dominated the 20th century, took the lives of millions — and transformed his own?
The Life He Left Behind
From age three to nine, Heller was Ota, living in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. For three of those years he was one of Europe’s thousands of children who grew up hidden under the noses of the Nazis.
Heller lived “in hiding like an animal,” missing his Jewish father Rudy and witnessing his Catholic mother’s bravery in the face of Nazi torture and enforced labor. His Jewish heritage kept secret from him, he believed they were persecuted because his father had chosen to fight with the British Army.
Three years after World War II ended, the shadow of Communism fell over Czechoslovakia. The reunited family took flight, and 13-year-old Ota Karel Heller disappeared into all-American Charlie Heller.
Into the Future
At 76, the tall man with laughing green eyes and brown hair is uncannily youthful. Quick with a smile, muscular from years of skiing and boating, formidable with both master’s degree and doctorate, Heller lived the American dream.
He married his New Jersey high school sweetheart, worked hundred-hour weeks, had a son and grandchildren, skied, sailed and played golf, enjoying success at every turn.
Classmates at Oklahoma State University knew Charlie as a varsity basketball player and winner of the Outstanding Student award.
Midshipmen knew him as Dr. Heller, their engineering professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Entrepreneurs knew him as a venture capitalist who started two successful software companies and served as director of the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship.
For all those years, he seldom looked back.
Flooded with Memories
In 1989, Czechoslovakia broke free from Communist domination in the peaceful Velvet Revolution. With Heller’s homeland in the news, friends besieged him with questions. Instead of his usual curt answers, Heller related anecdotes of the life he left behind.
The following year, Heller returned to the land of his birth. As his plane descended, he spotted his village, Kojetice, and the woods he walked with Dedecek, his 80-year-old great grandfather.
In Prague, he found his boyhood friend Vlad’a Svoboda. After 42 years, memories flooded back.
“People who experience constant trauma even in early childhood don’t forget those things that caused the trauma. You may block them out — I did — but they’re still there in your soul,” Heller says.
In a life filled with drama, memories define him.
One is saying goodbye to his beloved Dedecek as the old man, dressed in a gray suit and “a gray overcoat with a six-pointed yellow star with the strange word Jude at its center,” boarded a train. He was murdered at Treblinka.
Coming Full Circle
To find the thread of his story, Heller poured over old photos and journals. How, he asked himself, had he “suppressed knowledge of my true ethnicity. Had I been ignorant of my background, had I been in a state of deliberate denial? Or had I simply feared the truth?”
Prague: My Long Journey Home, published last year in the Czech Republic and now in the U.S., is Heller’s story of survival, acceptance and triumph. Glimpsed through the innocent eyes of a child, Prague makes the Nazi devastation all the more incomprehensible. Heller’s book — which has earned the Writer’s Digest Mark of Quality — packs drama, humor and historical detail into a loving tribute to Heller’s parents and the friends who helped them.
“I wrote to honor them and to show young people that it is possible to overcome difficulties, even tragedy, through perseverance and strong will,” Heller said. “They should never give up, no matter how bleak the situation may appear.”
Meet Heller and hear him read from Prague at 3pm on Saturday, May 19, at The Annapolis Bookstore, 35 Maryland Ave. Follow Heller at www.charlesoheller.blogspot.com.