Wednesday, December 23, 2009


A couple of weeks ago at a meeting of writers, a novelist whom I had just met told me that she was "impressed by all the things you've done in your life." She had read my bio on my web site and was reacting to the fact that I've gone through five distinct phases of professional life.

"Do you find the latest phase, being a writer, the most difficult one?" she asked.

I responded in the negative, but I didn't elaborate. It was only later that I had time to look back and contemplate nearly 50 years of my professional life and to determine not only which phase had been the most difficult, but also how each of the other phases could be described with a single "most." Here's what I concluded:

Phase I:    Engineer              --  most boring
Phase II:   Academic           --  most satisfying
Phase III:  Entrepreneur       --  most terrifying
Phase IV:  Venture capitalist -- most difficult
Phase V:   Writer                 --  most frustrating

I should explain why the current phase is "most frustrating." Most of my career has been about control. As long as I had some degree of control over matters -- when my own actions and decisions could affect outcome -- I was able to overcome obstacles and to maintain my sanity. As a writer, I feel that I have little control, beyond putting words on paper. Others make decisions while I wait for that e-mail or phone call, telling me that I'm going to get published. That's frustrating -- but I'm still enjoying myself.

I wish you Happy Holidays and all the best for the new year! Thank you for reading my blog.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Maryland -- A State of Writers

Last night, I attended a meeting of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers' Association. We meet monthly at a coffeeshop in a part of town which calls itself "The Maritime Republic of Eastport." Last night's affair was a book fair, whereby exhibiting members sold their respective books to other members. As I browsed through most of the publications on display, I was blown away by the quality of the writing and the imagination behind some of the plots -- from mysteries to adventures to memoirs to poetry. As a relative newcomer to our community of writers, I continue to be amazed by the amount of talent in our quaint, small town, known more for sailing than for literature.

The talent extends far beyond Annapolis. The state of Maryland seems to be a haven for writers and poets. I urge you to sample some of the works of these incredible individuals. The best way to see what's out there is to go on the web site of the Maryland Writers' Association,, and to click on "Member Web Sites." You will find brief bios of 46 Maryland writers and references to their books, which cover nearly every possible genre of fiction and nonfiction. You may find some interesting presents for your friends and family for the Holidays.

Friday, November 27, 2009


For us, Thanksgiving weekend marks the end of the boating season. For nearly 30 years, we raced sailboats on the Chesapeake Bay. Every year, we prepared our boat for haul-out immediately after the Thursday holiday, and she would go "on the dry" on Monday. Sailboat racing had been a family sport for us. Sue and I sailed together, and David began crewing around the age of six. We began with a Catalina 27 named "Serene," and later graduated to a C&C 30, which we named "Blue Ice." Our last sailboat, a C&C 35, was called "Pistol Pete," after the mascot of my alma mater, Oklahoma State University.

We sold "Pistol Pete" and gave up racing soon after David married and Sue and I took up golf. We thought that we could be happy without a boat. But, living near Annapolis and being without a means to get out on the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay proved to be impossible. We bought a small runabout, which satisfied us for a couple of years. But then one day, I spotted the most beautiful powerboat I had ever seen. She had a dark green hull, teak decks, a mahogany caprail, and gorgeous lines ending in a rounded stern. At the time, I was involved in a company about to go public, and I announced to Sue and our friends: "That's going to be my IPO boat!"

And so we ended up buying an Italian Apreamare and we named her "Czech Mate." Although work and golf have kept us from being on the water very often, we've now enjoyed our mini-yacht for ten seasons. This weekend, we're holding with the tradition we established with sailboats -- before going over to the "dark side" -- and we're getting ready to put "Czech Mate" on the dry on Monday.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why another "survivor memoir?"

Soon after the overthrow of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in November 1989, I reunited with my closest boyhood friend, Vladimír “Vlád̛a” Svoboda. I had left him behind when my parents and I escaped from the country in 1948, and both of us were twelve years old. Now we were in our mid-fifties, and we had travelled along divergent paths – dictated by our respective environments – to get there.

“We should write a book together,” Vlád̛a announced one day over a beer in a Prague pub. “Two boys grew up together. One escaped to find success and happiness in a free country. The other stayed behind and, because he refused to join the Communist Party, was unable to reach his potential and ended up a poor man. The contrast between living under democracy and totalitarianism would make for fascinating reading on both sides of the ocean.”

Although I had been a part-time writer throughout my life, I was not enthusiastic about the proposed project. The logistics, geographic separation, and the fact that I would be writing in English while Vlád̛a wrote in Czech were reasons enough to reject the idea out of hand. The fact that I was working nearly one-hundred-hour weeks in the “day job” which put bread on our table, and thus had little time to write -- while Vlád̛a was about to enter retirement in the mountains -- rendered it impossible from my standpoint. But, I could not simply turn my good friend down. I promised him that we would seek a professional opinion about the viability of such a book.

Alan Levy, senior editor of The Prague Post, had written a lengthy article about me and, subsequently, we had become friends. Alan had been a New York Times correspondent in Czechoslovakia, had written two wonderful books about life in the country under communism, and had won international acclaim for his most recent book, The Wiesenthal File. If anyone could advise us about the potential of Vlád̛a’s proposed book, it would be Alan. On my next visit to Prague, he joined Vlád̛a and me, along with our wives, for lunch at a French restaurant in Obecní dům (Municipal House). Alan’s Czech was excellent “for an American,” and he listened intently as Vlád̛a explained the essence of the book. When the latter finished, Alan wiped the remnants of a chocolate éclair from his lips, scratched his head, and looked first at me and then at Vlád̛a.

“I’m sure it will be a wonderful book,” he said in Czech. “Your families will love it.”

The late Alan Levy was a great writer partly because he could say so much using very few words. His two-sentence indictment killed the project.

Following the Velvet Revolution, Americans seemed to take a special interest in the small, far-off, country of Czechoslovakia. I responded to frequent inquiries of friends, acquaintances, and various organizations with stories and speeches about my youth – anecdotes about life during the Second World War, our liberation from Nazi oppression, the communist take-over, our escape, and life in refugee camps. I was told: “you must write your memoir” several hundred times. But, whenever I entertained the idea of putting pen to paper, I recalled Alan Levy’s words. After all, who but family and friends could possibly want to read my story?

I was in a hotel room one night when a television skit called “Jaywalking” started me on the road to changing my mind. On “The Tonight Show,” host Jay Leno was doing one of his man-on-the-street interviews during which he asked passers-by questions labeled by their low level of difficulty: “third-grade questions,” “eighth-grade questions,” and so on. On this particular night, he was standing on the campus of the University of Michigan and asking students “sixth-grade questions” pertaining to the Second World War. I sat with my mouth wide open in astonishment as I listened to one university student after another admit that he or she had no clue about the approximate years during which the war had taken place or who had been President of the U.S. during that time. When one student told Leno that Americans and Germans had fought side-by-side against the Russians in World War II, I nearly fell off my chair.

“Oh, my God!” I gasped.

Even worse, I was reading in newspapers and magazines about people – many of them know-nothing anti-semites, but also a few who seemed otherwise articulate and educated – deny the existence of the Holocaust. With such liars and naysayers populating the world and influencing the thinking of young people, I knew that I had to speak out, to bear witness, to set the record straight. Later, when I looked into the faces of our three grandchildren – Sam, Sarah, and Caroline – I knew that I must record the story of the Heller/Neumann family and how it was affected by the upheavals of twentieth-century’s greatest tragedy. After all, in a few more years, there will be no one left who can provide personal testimony.

Hundreds of books have been written about the Second World War, but only a small percentage of them have presented the story through the eyes of some of the millions of children who lived in Europe during the late 1930s and early 1940s and whose lives were shaped forever by the dangers, horrors and unsettling events they experienced. I was one of those children, and I decided that I had to write Out of Prague: A Memoir of Survival, Denial, and Triumph. I hope it will be published soon and that you will take the time to read it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Why Am I Doing This?

This blog becomes part of my writer's web site -- -- which I have just created and which goes live today. I call myself a "writer," despite the fact that I've spent the majority of my professional life (translated "my day jobs") as, first, an engineer, and then a university professor, a software entrepreneur, a company CEO, a venture capitalist, a speaker/lecturer, and a member of numerous boards of directors. But, always, I have been writing -- one way or another. In high school, I was a sports editor; in college, I wrote for and edited the #1-ranked university magazine in the country; and, while running companies, I moonlighted as a newspaper columnist and freelance writer in fields ranging from sailing and skiing to entrepreneurship and corporate venturing. Always, I've driven my colleagues and employees crazy with my red proofreader's pen. Now, I'm opening myself up to the same scutiny from others.

I was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, three years before the Second World War. When the Germans occupied us, my father escaped to join the British Army and my mother was taken away by the Nazis to a slave labor camp. She hid me on a farm, where I spent most of the war as one of the so-called "Hidden Children." My parents and I reunited at the war's end, but soon discovered that we were the only survivors in our family. In 1948, the Communists took over our country, and my parents and I escaped. We spent a year-and-a-half in refugee camps in the U.S. Zone of Germany, while awaiting a visa to America. We settled in Morristown, New Jersey, where I met my future wife and lifelong companion, Sue. We've had a great life together -- most of it having been spent in the Land of Pleasant Living, upstream from beautiful Annapolis, Maryland. Our son David, his wife Bobbi, and our three grandkids, Sam, Sarah, and Caroline, live five minutes from us.

We're about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution, which -- in November 1989 -- brought an end to Communism in Czechoslovakia. I had been asked -- no, directed -- by my parents to forget everything I had seen on the other side of the Atlantic the minute we stepped onto American soil. I had done as I was told. Or so I thought. My frequent visits to my native country -- which included the recovery of our family properties -- brought me face-to-face with my past. Much of that was heartwarming: reuniting with friends and the places where I had spent my early years. But, some of it was extremely painful: coming to grips with the fact that I had spent years denying my background and ethnicity, and thus, unknowingly, disrespecting my dead family members.

This battle with the past, in addition to a desire to add my voice to those who have borne witness to horrific events which some people deny and many more ignore, drove me to the realization that I must write a book. Out of Prague: A Memoir of Survival, Denial, and Triumph is a result of work which has taken some six years. Many people have helped and inspired me along the way. I was extremely lucky to be united with a super agent, Elaine Markson of the Markson Thoma Literary Agency in New York. Elaine has been instrumental in making me sharpen the book's focus; she is now shopping the manuscript to publishers, while I'm working on a second memoir and keeping my fingers crossed.