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.