PhDr. Charles Ota Heller

* 1936  

  • I was born on 25th January 1936, my father was Rudolf Heller and my mother Ilona Hellerová, whose maiden name was Neumannová. We lived in a little village Kojetice some 11km from Prague. My great grandfather Gustav Neumann came to Kojetice in the early 1900s, he opened a general store selling everything from brooms, bread and clothes to newspapers. Later he started manufacturing clothes: He became the first importer of Singer sewing machines into Czechoslovakia and various ladies who lived in the area of Kojetice and Líbeznice were sewing dresses in their homes on sewing machines my great grandfather had provided for them and by 1925/26 my great grandfather had a firm which became the largest manufacturer of women´s dresses and men´s workclothes in all of Central Europe. My father, who lived in Kralupy, finished studies at Business School in Prague and went to work for my great grandfather in Kojetice. He fell in love with the boss´s granddaughter. They were married on Staroměstská radnice in 1934 and I was born two years later.

  • We lived in a strange household because my mother´s parents never married. Her father, Artur, son of Gustav Neumann, was a Jew and her mother, Marie Kozuschnikova, was a Sudeten German from Ostrava and a Catholic. My mother was baptised as a Catholic after she was born in Vienna and adopted by Artur. Her mother never lived with us. On the Jewish side, our household in Kojetice consisted of my great grandfather, my grandfather, his brother and my father. I was a devout Catholic boy and went to mass with my mother to church across the street from our home. Religion was never discussed in my family. The Jewish members of our household were completely secular, they never went to synagogue, they never spoke Yiddish or Hebrew. They were patriotic Czechs who spoke only Czech, all of them. We celebrated Easter, we celebrated Christmas and I never thought of our family as anything but everyone in our village. And I was happy to be like everybody else. I never thought otherwise.

  • It was in March 1939. I was only 3 years old but in conversations over dinner table I could hear that something was wrong. Various relatives from other areas, different places like Kralupy and area around Kralupy started coming to visit us and started to disappear. I had no idea why and I was told not to ask. Finally, my father disappeared. He escaped with the intent to fight against the Nazis. He ended up in Beograde waiting for the partisans to help him, eventually to get him out to Palestine. He was seen by a policeman in a park with an English newspaper. He arrested him thinking he was a spy, while my father was actually learning English. He spent two weeks in prison and when the day of the trial came, a guard took him to a waiting room of the courthouse. He told him he was a partisan and he would turn his back so that my father could disappear, which he did. He hid in a coal cellar, then went to the South to the seaside pretending he was a tourist. When the air was clear, he went back to Beograd, connected with partisans and via Greece and Turkey he eventually ended up in Jaffa as one of the first volunteers in the Czechoslovak Brigade of the British Army. And from there he fought in North Africa under Montgomery where he was twice at two sieges of Tobruk. Eventually, they were evacuated and taken to England, he was at Dunkerque, he was in the Invasion.

  • My great grandfather and I we were each other´s best friends. We couldn´t go outside the farm and I was not allowed to go to school. All my friends went and when I asked why, and why we lost our home, the answer was always Because your father is in the army and is fighting against the Germans. Nobody knew where my father was or if he was even alive. It was never mentioned that the real reason was that I had three Jewish grandparents and so was considered a Jew by the Germans. One morning I came down to eat breakfast. My great grandfather was standing there in his three-piece grey suit he always wore with a yellow star on it. He had a suitcase by his feet. I said: Where are you going? And he said: Oh, I´m just going away for a little while, I´ll be back soon. He made me believe he was going on a vacation somewhere. He had to report in Prague where the Park Hotel is now and the next morning he and many others marched to the station to be taken to Terezín. He stayed there for 6 months and in October 1942 was transported to Treblinka where he was murdered immediately. He was 82 years old.

  • My father chose a day - Jan Masaryk´s funeral - without telling me. There were rumours that there were probably gonna be riots and they might bring in some soldiers that were guarding the border to Prague. So we drove west and ended up in Aš. We gave our car, an American Ford, to the people who were helping us, we took a bus and a train and got to a small village. A farmer picked us up and took us to his farm. He said we had to wait till midnight and then he would take us to the forest and show us the way. The farmer actually stole one of our four suitcases. At midnight after my father yelled at the farmer who denied stealing it, we finally went to the edge of the forest. The farmer pointed in a certain direction and said OK, start walking. You´ll walk for about 3 hours and if they don´t shoot you first, you´ll be in the US zone in Germany. It was scary, it was dark and we kept tripping over stones and wood. By this time I knew we were escaping and father explained to me why. I was 12 at this point so I could understand.

  • Full recordings
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    Hotel Marriott, Praha, 04.08.2014

    duration: 49:06
    media recorded in project Fleeing into the Freedom
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

Never, ever give up

Charlie Heller, Morristown, New Jersey, 1959
Charlie Heller, Morristown, New Jersey, 1959
photo: archiv pamětníka

Charles Ota Heller was born as Ota Karel Heller on 25th January 1936 in Prague. He was brought up as a Catholic and discovered his Jewish roots only at an adult age. He spent his childhood in Kojetice near Prague where his family owned a great deal of property and generously supported the life of the village. Ota´s mother Ilona family was brought up as a Catholic by her Jewish grandfather, father and uncle. Until Czechoslovakia became occupied by Hitler´s Army, little Ota had an idyllic, happy childhood. Everything came to a drastic end in March 1939: his father left to fight in the Czechoslovak Division of the British Army, and the family had no news about him for more than five years. Then a Nazi Josef Hollmann took over the family’s factory and evicted them from their home. Ota was not allowed to leave the farm where the lived, was not allowed to go to school, was not allowed to know that the reason of the persecution was his Jewish origin. 25 members of Ota´s family did not return from concentration camps. His mother´s mother Marie Kozuschniková helped Ota and Ilona to survive.   At the beginning of the war, all the family property, both in Kojetice and in Prague, was confiscated and the same history was to be repeated in 1948. During the war, Ota´s father fought in the two seiges of Tobruk, participated in the D-Day invasion, crossed the Rhein, and reached Pilsen with General Patton. After the liberation, Ota finally started to attend school. In 1947, the Hellers moved to Prague and resumed normal lives. But the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia’s government in February 1948 changed everything. Their escape across the border was successful. The start in the New World was far from easy. Father wanted Ota to be 100% American, hence the change of a name, focus on mastering the language and an emphasis on sport. After completing his engineering studies, Charlie married Susan Holsten. Charlie successfully completed his doctorate studies and since then has alternatively been working in consultancy, entrepreneurship, teaching how to be an entrepreneur and how to link academic studies with practical business. As an expert he was was invited to Czechoslovakia to lecture on the subject.   After 1989, , as a dual citizen, he assisted managements of newly-privatized companies in ČR and recovered his family’s properties. Charlie feels more and more how deep his links to his home are. He strives to pass on to his son and grandchildren his feelings of his Czech roots. Here is the reason why he starts to write. So far, the result are two books of his memoirs of which the first one, Prague: My Long Journey Home (2011) was also published in the Czech translation as Dlouhá cesta domů (2011).