Friday, May 20, 2011

Book cover

Several friends who have followed my blogs about my "magical book tour" have asked why I haven't shown the photo on the cover of my book. Thank you all for the heads-up. Here is the beautiful, melancholy image of a family on the bank of the river Vltava by Czech photographer Pavel Kolin.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Czech-language book available in North America

In order to save shipping costs for Czech-speaking North Americans who wish to purchase Dlouha cesta domu, we have made arrangements with a Canadian book-selling web site from which the book can be ordered. Please go on


and request Dlouha cesta domu by Charles Ota Heller. Thank you.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Final day of book tour -- May 2, 2011

On the way to the Prague airport at five in the morning, I asked our friend Vlada to turn on the radio in order to catch the weather forecast. The first announcement we heard was: "Osama bin Laden is dead!" After a brief celebration, I experienced a selfish reaction. "Why couldn't they have waited a day?" I had been told that the story about me and my book was to run in that morning's Lidove noviny, one of the largest and most popular newspapers in the Czech Republic. Now, I thought, the story will be pushed into some remote corner of page 83.

After going through security, Sue and I headed to a newstand, where we picked up three copies of the paper. We took them with us to a nearby coffeeshop. We bought our breakfast and prepared to sift through the innards of the paper, in search of the story. Then -- surprise! There it was, on the FRONT page! The headline announced, "Strelil 'nacistu'. Bylo mu devet" ("He Shot a Nazi. He Was Nine"). The article continued on the back page, with photos from the book, plus one of me holding Dlouha cesta domu in my hand. What a finish to a fantastic book launch!

I am grateful to the Navy SEALS, not only for shooting America's Number One Enemy, but for waiting to announce it long enough to miss the deadlines of Europe's morning newspapers.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Days 7 and 8 of book tour -- April 30-May 1, 2011

The formal book tour finished, Sue and I are free to spend the weekend with friends. Saturday is devoted to time with my distant cousin, Sylva Pustina (right in bottom photo), her husband Karel, and son Daniel (left in photo). All escaped from the communist regime and reside in Germany. Sylva and Karel have been at their Czech weekend home for three weeks; Daniel drives from Nurenberg (often at 200-plus km/hr) in the morning. We spend the day exploring Prague. Sylva has read a good portion of my book, and she corrects me on one matter, adds information about another, and then floors me by telling me that her dad had been arrested by the communists in 1948 after receiving a postcard from my father, informing him that we had made it "to the other side." When I wonder why I had never been told this by my parents, Sylva tells me that she doesn't think they knew. I will make the correction and additions to the English-language version of the book. If I'm lucky enough to have a second printing, I will also add them to the Czech version.

We spend Sunday with my oldest friend, Vlada Svoboda (left in top photo) and his wife Marie. We explore Prague, pay homage to the Nazi-destroyed village of Lidice, and complete our day at the beautiful State Opera House, where we see Antonin Dvorak's "Rusalka."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Day 6 of book tour -- April 29, 2011

I have Friday morning off. Sue and I walk to Josefov, site of a memorial where the names of 77,000 Czech victims of the Holocaust are printed on walls, in the manner of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. The martyrs are listed by their home towns. Each time we go, I find another member of my family. This time, listed among the victims from the town of Kralupy, I discover the man who raised my father after my paternal grandfather was killed in World War I. I find Papa's uncle, Emil Neumann, born October 10, 1891, and murdered on October 26, 1942, along with 11 members of his immediate family. Most people use city and state records to trace their geneologies; I fill in the missing pieces of mine by visiting memorials.

In the afternoon, it's back to work. First, I meet with Martina Cermakova, editor of the Prague Daily Monitor, an English-language daily newspaper ( My second session is with Dana Vlckova from the magazine, Nase rodina (Our Family). The third interview of the day, and last of my magical tour, is interesting because it is with two university students who represent the website and who have a totally different view of the world from that of their adult counterparts. A young man whose name I don't know accompanies a pretty young lady named Katerina Ciborova. After having answered the same questions from various members of the media all week, it is refreshing to hear the young guy say: "Leaving your country must be like breaking up with your girlfriend. Really difficult." I laugh and agree.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Day 5 of book tour -- April 28, 2011

I have reserved most of Thursday for our traditional loop of Prague-Kralupy-Melnik-Kojetice-Prague. My father was born and grew up in Kralupy. Melnik castle sits high on a hilltop, overlooking the confluence of the nation's two great rivers -- Vltava (Moldau) and Labe (Elbe) -- and overlooks the mountain Rip, which is important both in the history of the nation and that of my family. Kojetice is the village in which I grew up, the home of our former clothing factory.

Our friends, Vlada and Marie Svoboda, pick us up at the hotel. After a brief stop in Kralupy, we enjoy the sunshine and view from an outdoor table at the Melnik castle. It has become our tradition to drink a glass of Ludmila wine there (regardless of time of day), just as my parents did before and after the war. On to Kojetice, where we meet our good friend and town historian, Jaroslav Kucera. Together, we place flowers on a monument honoring local citizens who died in the two world wars. The WW-II plaque includes the names of my great-grandfather, grandfather, great-uncle, and godfather. Jaroslav has arranged for a tour of our former apartment and factory. Both are sad facsimiles of what were once a magnificent home and a bustling plant. I had received them through restitution a few years back and sold them, hoping that the buyer would restore them to their former glory. No such luck.

After a brief interlude in the Kucera home -- where Mother and I had lived in a single room for several months during the war -- we head for Prague and another interview. I spend an hour with Judita Matyasova of Lidove noviny, one of the nation's major newspapers. Judita doesn't finish, so she hops in a cab with Sue, Tony Koci, and me to complete her questioning, while we ride to the American Center of the U. S. Embassy. As she departs, Judita informs me that her article will run in Monday's paper.

Our friend Jana "Stepanka" Matesova arranged for me to speak and read (in English) at the American Center. The session is attended by a small, but very interested, group. Surrounded by flags and a banner featuring my book, I read the "hook" -- the story of my shooting a Nazi when I was nine years old. I sign books for those present and for Ambassador Norman Eisen.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Day 4 of book tour -- April 27, 2011

Following an interview with the magazine "Sedmicka" ("Seven") -- one of many periodicals owned by my publisher, Mlada Fronta -- I change into the new suit I had bought expressly for the Big Occasion. Sue and I walk (in Prague, one nearly always walks) to Wenceslas Square and to the Luxor bookstore, where the book will be launched officially, with ceremonies slated to begin at five o'clock. Known as the Palace of Books, the seven-floor store is the largest in the Czech Republic. When we walk in, we are greeted by an announcement of the launch and reading on the PA system. It appears that we'll have walk-ins, as well as the invited guests in attendance.

After a brief strategy meeting, four of us take our places at the head table. Left to right in the photo: Antonin Koci (MF editor), Irena Zikova (translator and interpreter), I (the author -- sorry, I like the sound of that!), and Alexander Turkovic (District Governor-elect of the nation's Rotary clubs).

Tony Koci gives a brief welcoming speech and, suddenly, the mike is in my hand. In English with Irena translating, I introduce all those in the audience who are "characters" in my book. Then I surprise everyone by reading -- in Czech -- an episode describing my melodramatic return to Prague after the Velvet Revolution. There is applause and, as I look out over the crowd, some -- particularly our friends -- seem as emotional as I am. Sasha Turkovic speaks briefly about the meaning of Rotary and makes a connection between my life and Rotary's motto, "service above self." A Q&A session follows. Among many other questions, I am asked, perhaps for the tenth time this week, whether I feel more American or Czech. For the tenth time, I give the same answer: "Both, equally." [The next day, after some introspection, I will modify this answer.]

Finally, the big moment arrives. We break open the champagne and, with Sue joining the celebration, we christen the book. DLOUHA CESTA DOMU has been launched! I stay for a long time to sign books and finally have to be pulled away for yet another interview, this one with Czech Radio Leonardo.

As Sue and I walk away with our good friend, Jitka Thomasova, in search of a pub, I feel overwhelmed. Is this really happening? More than six years of writing and rewriting, Now, I really have a book.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Day 3 of book tour -- April 26, 2011

It's time to get to work. At 8 am, I meet with Antonin (Tony) Koci and Magdalena Potmesilova of Mlada Fronta, my publisher. They brief me about the national TV show, called CT24, on which I will appear this morning at 10:10. The show is the equivalent of America's morning shows, and my segment will be ten minutes long. The station sends a taxi which whisks Sue and me to one of Czech TV's several buildings. Butterflies in my stomach are dancing a Czech polka while the make-up lady makes a futile attempt to make me beautiful. I'm wired and escorted to the studio. My hostess is a blond woman named Patricie Strouhalova. We sit behind a curved desk, with my book standing between us, its cover facing the camera. Suddenly, the red light goes on and Strouhalova begins speaking. I listen to her announcing the next segment in Czech, while an interpreter's calm voice is repeating her words to me in English. I find it distracting. It would be much better if my hostess were speaking a language foreign to me; I wouldn't be listening to both voices. I am asked to speak about my life and about the book. I'm o.k. and think that I handle the questions well until Strouhalova throws me a curveball. Opening my book to a page with a photo showing my father in a British army uniform in Tobruk, Lybia, she asks me about the current war in that country. I recover and give a bland answer. After that, the rest of the show is a blur -- and then it's over. I sit and stare into the camera until the red light goes off. I remember an old adage: any publicity is better than no publicity.

In the afternoon, I am interviewed by transplanted Englishman David Vaughan for an English-language program on Czech Radio 7, Prague. The show is taped, so I relax, knowing that any screw-up can be deleted.

In the evening, Sue and I walk to the Hotel Pariz (Paris), where I speak to the Rotary Club of Old Town. All but one Rotarian speak English, so I give the story of the book in my second language. Then I surprise the audience by reading a piece from my book in Czech. I stumble occasionally, but the Rotarians are kind and compliment me on "such great pronounciation." I stay after the meeting to sign books. As we head back to the hotel in a light drizzle, I'm happy to have gotten through the first day and feel confident that I can handle the upcoming challenges.

[The TV program begins at 52:25 of ]

Day 2 of book tour -- April 25, 2011

Today is a day off, in preparation for a superbusy week. It's Easter Monday, a national holiday in the Czech Republic. The irony is not lost on me: the world's most atheist (nearly 80%) nation celebrates Easter Monday! That's a subject I need to explore at another time.

Sue and I spend the day at Prague castle (photo), the most sacred spot in the CR. From there, we make our way down through Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter) to Stare Mesto (Old Town). In our hotel room, I sign my first book. Appropriately, it is for my collaborator on the book, our friend and my translator, Irena Zikova. We meet Irena for dinner in the elegant dining room of the Imperial Hotel. At dinner, we catch up on family happenings and strategize about the upcoming book launch event, at which Irena will be my interpreter. In the middle of the meal, Irena surprises me.

"I saw on your website the claim that you're a 'full-time writer,'" she says. "Don't make such a statement here. Czechs don't like bragging."
"That's bragging?" I ask.
"Yes, it is. You are not a writer. You're a successful businessman and educator. You may have written a book, but you're not yet a writer. That takes many years and much success."

I want to argue that I am now not only a writer, but I'm an author. Instead, I continue to chew my knedliky (those incredible Czech dumplings). I decide to follow Irena's advice as my magical book tour begins.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Day 1 of book tour -- April 24, 2011

We check into the Marriott hotel near the Municipal House in Prague. The moment I've been anticipating for weeks arrives. The bellman comes out of the baggage room with a stack of books, which had been sent there by my publisher, Mlada Fronta. They're wrapped in clear plastic, five to a package. I want to grab the top pack off the bellman's cart, to tear it apart, and start admiring. Instead, I think: is that what Pat Conroy would do? No way!

I act casual, pretending that I do this regularly. When the bellman spots my photo staring at him through the covering, he asks: "Vy?" ("You?"). I answer "Ano," ("Yes") and take satisfaction from the admiring look on his face. As soon as he leaves our room, I rip off the wrapper and begin the examination of the product of 75 years of my life and more than six years of writing, rewriting, editing, and more rewriting.

There really is a book with my name on its cover! It's called DLOUHA CESTA DOMU (LONG JOURNEY HOME), and it's beautiful.

That evening, Sue and I celebrate at a nearby pub, under the stars. I have my favorite dish -- svickova -- accompanied by the world's finest beer, and we toast the book. I am an author!