Charles Heller (born Ota Karel Heller), 1936
Charles Heller was born in Prague in 1936. His father, Rudolph, was the owner of a clothing manufacturing firm in Kojetice near Prague, which had been started by Charles’ great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Gustav Neumann. Charles’ mother, Ilona, had been born in Vienna and raised in Kojetice – a devout Catholic in what was otherwise a Jewish family. Charles also attended Catholic church in his youth.
With the outbreak of WWII, the clothing factory was seized by the Nazis and handed to an ethnic German called Hollmann. Charles’ great-grandfather Gustav was sent to Terezín and later, it is thought, to Treblinka camp in Poland, from which he did not return. Charles’ father Rudolph, who was also Jewish, fled Czechoslovakia in 1940 and made it to Palestine, where he joined the British Army, and eventually fought as part of the British Army’s Czechoslovak Division. In 1944, Charles’ mother was taken away to a forced labor camp for wives of Jewish men and Charles himself went into hiding. He spent the rest of the War hiding in a closet in a farm belonging to the Tůma family not far from Kojetice. Charles says he was told that this was because his father was fighting the Nazis; it was only as an adult that he was told it was because he was three-quarters Jewish. Charles was reunited with his mother and father in the summer of 1945; he says, however, 15 other members of his family did not return.
The Heller family moved to Prague shortly after the War so that Charles could attend school in the capital. In 1948, the clothing factory the family owned in Kojetice was nationalized and one floor of their apartment building they owned in Prague was turned into the local Communist Party headquarters. The family decided to leave and planned their escape to coincide with the funeral of Jan Masaryk, held in the capital in March 1948. They crossed the border by foot at night into the American zone of Germany near Rossbach (a town in West Bohemia today known as Hranice). Charles and his family spent one year and a half in refugee camps in Germany (including Schwabach and Ludwigsburg) before coming to America in May 1949. They settled in Morristown, New Jersey, and Charles’ father again got involved in the clothing business, starting as a pattern cutter and rising to a top management position at McGregor Sportswear. Charles attended Morristown High School and then Oklahoma State University on a basketball scholarship. An engineer by profession, Charles moved to Maryland to work for Bell Labs in the 1960s and has remained in the ‘Old Line State’ ever since. In recent years he has become involved in venture capitalism and conducts seminars for new managers, both in the Czech Republic and the United States. Charles published a book of his memoirs recently, and he lives in Arnold, Maryland, with his wife Sue.
Charles remembers playing in his great-grandfather’s factory as a child
“I was there all the time playing hide and seek among the stacks of cloth. And with my friends, playing cowboys and Indians and everything else, yeah. But it started out as a very small store, by my great-grandfather, around 1910 or so, and he actually ran a general store, and then clothing store, and he was the first man in the country to import Singer sewing machines. And he hired three ladies in the area to start sewing for him, and eventually grew it into the largest company of its type, for that type of clothing, in Central Europe.”
Charles’ father fought in the Czechoslovak Division of the British Army during WWII
“My mother finally told me one day that my father was fighting against the Germans. That’s all I knew, in fact, that became my mantra because all the slights that took place during the War – I wasn’t allowed to go to school, eventually I had to be hidden, my mother hid me on a farm when she was taken away to a slave labor camp for Christian wives of Jewish men, and so she hid me, she hid me away – and I always wanted to know why, why were we being picked out, you know, having to suffer, and me not being about to go to school, not being able to play with my friends for all those years, having to hide out? And the answer always was ‘Because your father is fighting against the Germans.’ And I thought, to me, I was so proud of that that it didn’t bother me that all these things were happening to me. I was never told the real truth, I never found out the real truth until really not too many years ago, when I was an adult. I didn’t know that all these things were really happening because I was actually three quarters Jewish.”
Charles went into hiding in 1944
“In 1944, the Germans started taking away women who were, and who had been, married to Jewish men. And they had a camp, a slave labor camp, in Prague. And in that camp they manufactured windshields for German fighter airplanes. So my mother was taken to that camp. And before she left she hid me with some friends, actually farmers, that we had been living with after the Germans expelled us from our home. And they in the meantime had lost their farm, because the Germans had taken their farm away from them, and they became farmhands on a big farm in the same village. So I lived with them and they actually hid me in a closet. And I’d come out occasionally at night and as the War came to an end I started coming out more and more because it was obvious that the Germans were going to lose the War and a lot of people were losing their fear of the Germans.”
Charles remembers listening to the BBC during WWII
“Every radio that you saw during the War in Czechoslovakia – or in the Protectorate, there was no Czechoslovakia – had a paper tag on the front, attached to one of the buttons, which meant that it had been inspected and checked and gutted, gutted such that it could not get any international broadcasts. And every Czech was smart enough, almost every Czech was smart enough, to be able to fix it. They had this little bug, it had a name – I can’t remember what it was called, this little thing that they made – it was like a two-dollar item that you would buy at Radio Shack today, that they stuck in the radio so that they could all listen. And everybody listened to the BBC, in Czech. And every night at a particular time, I can’t remember, it was like 8:00 or 9:00, there was a broadcast, and it would start out with Beethoven’s symphony. It went ‘boom boom boom, boom!’ – it would start out like that, and it would say, the first two words would be ‘vola Londyn,’ – ‘London is calling.’ And I would, at first I would sneak behind the door and I would listen to these broadcasts, because it was the only truth we got about what was going on in the War. Because otherwise it was all propaganda and the Germans were always winning, whether it was on the Russian front or, you know, anywhere else. But this was the true story about the War – so that’s how I knew. Eventually, after about a year or so, they knew that I had been listening, so they just let me sit in the room with them each evening. So that’s how I knew what was going on in the War, and you know, even though I was a kid I could comprehend it, pretty well.”
The Heller family left Czechoslovakia on foot in March 1948
“A farmer came riding up on a horse-drawn wagon, and told us to pile in with our three suitcases and a bundle of blankets that I was carrying. [He] took us out to his farm, and told us to sit tight until midnight. They fed us dinner and we sat there just watching the clock and midnight came, the farmer says ‘Okay, it’s time to go,’ and the next thing I heard was my father screaming at the farmer. The farmer had stolen one of our suitcases, and that was about one third of all of the belongings we had in the world at that point. The guy stole one of the suitcases. So, my father gave up, because the guy just wouldn’t admit that he had stolen it, even though we came into his house with three suitcases but now we went out with two. So my mother carried a suitcase, my father carried a suitcase and I carried a bundle of blankets which turned out had jewelry inside, which I wasn’t aware of. I was carrying the biggest asset we owned. And the farmer took us to the edge of the woods at the back of his farm and he said, because it was a beautiful night, it was a clear, clear night, but it was dark – there was no moon, but stars – this was in [March] of 1948, and the farmer says to us ‘That’s the direction to the US zone of Germany, just keep walking in that direction and, in about three hours, if they don’t shoot you first, that’s where you’ll end up.’”
Charles’ parents did not get involved in Czech & Slovak emigre groups in the States
“Very deliberately no. They wanted to put as much space between themselves and the immigrant community as possible, because – they had friends who were immigrants, I don’t mean to say that they completely forgot all their friends, they had friends in New York, we’d go and visit them over the weekend and so forth – but, they also saw in these immigrants what they didn’t want to be: people who are always complaining about how difficult things are in America, and how wonderful things would have been if we had stayed, and you know, all the things that they, that they didn’t do. They wanted to have nothing to do with the immigrant community – I mean outside of going to a Czech restaurant in New York, because the one thing that all three of us missed more than anything else was Czech food!”
Charles says he was told to ‘forget’ everything that he had experienced in Europe
“One thing that was drummed into me by my parents, from the moment we arrived here, was ‘Forget everything that happened to you on the other side of the ocean. Remember nothing. We’re starting a new life.’ And they really believed that I did, you know, and I guess, I think that I believed that I did, somehow, subconsciously. I never talked to my friends; you know, when people would ask ‘Where are you from?’ I would say ‘Oh, I’m from Czechoslovakia,’ but that was it, I would never give them any details, I would never say ‘Well, you know, during the War, I was one of the hidden children.’ None of that stuff, I never discussed it with anybody, or people would say – because I’d played soccer before soccer was very popular here and I was much better than anybody else they’d say ‘Where did you learn to play soccer like that?’ ‘Oh, in Czechoslovakia.’ But that was the extent of any conversation I would have, because I was bound and determined, by God, I was an American – as far as I was concerned, that never even happened. So, I didn’t pay any attention until 1968. When Prague Spring came, it was like a different world, I suddenly, suddenly I felt like I was a Czech. I started listening on… I had this transatlantic Zenith radio, shortwave, and I started listening to Radio Prague. And I heard all these beautiful things, and I heard Dubček speak, you know. All of a sudden, I felt like I was both an American and a Czech. Not for very long. And then after the invasion I put the curtain down again.”
Category: Oral History