Wednesday, February 29, 2012

From Holocaust survivor to American hero - an incredible story

My friend Les Grinspoon sent me a link to an incredible story of a concentration camp survivor who became an American soldier and Medal of Honor recipient. I have a new hero -- Tibor Rubin. Please view this clip:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Memory of a Tragic Event: Lidice

A few months after the end of the Second World War, I sat proudly next to my war-hero father as Czechoslovakia’s President Eduard Beneš dedicated a memorial to the victims of Lidice. It was a simple cross with a circle of barbed wire, yet its symbolism was overpowering. Three years earlier, Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis’ Deputy Protector of our country, had been mortally wounded by Czech paratroopers who had been flown in from their base in England as his open car rounded a curve. Heydrich – Hitler’s favorite henchman whose cruelty earned him the moniker, “Butcher of Prague” – survived for several days, but died of blood poisoning brought on by fragments of upholstery, steel, and his own Nazi uniform. 

As the Germans staged an elaborate funeral in Berlin, Czechs celebrated, albeit privately and secretly. Their elation did not last long. The Gestapo and the SS hunted down and murdered more than a thousand resistance members and ordinary citizens--anyone suspected of involvement in the assassination – and they deported 3,000 Czech Jews for extermination. 

 Then, in further revenge, the Germans committed one of the greatest single atrocities of the war, outside the death camps. They concocted a story that the citizens of the small village of Lidice, located near Prague’s Ruzyně airport, had provided assistance to the assassins. This was an outright lie. Lidice consisted of 503 people, 106 houses, a school, a small baroque church; no one in this farming community had a clue about the plot. On June 10, 1942, the Germans shot 172 men and seven women in Lidice. They burned the entire village to the ground, and they shipped 196 women to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where most died. Most of Lidice’s 96 children were murdered in gas chambers and a few, those who were lucky enough to have Aryan features – blond hair, blue eyes – were put into German orphanages, there to be raised as good Nazis. 

On that day in 1945, with returning soldiers who had defeated the Nazis seated with their families in special accommodations, we honored these victims of Lidice. The raising of a stark, simple cross and crown of thorns affected me deeply. The Lidice memorial has the same effect on me today.  I am drawn to this place by some invisible magnet each time I visit my native country. There are few visitors to Lidice. Whereas one must fight his way through throngs of tourists armed with cameras at Prague’s castle, Charles Bridge, and Wenceslas Square, a person can find solitude in Lidice. Solitude, and the opportunity to wonder how such cruelty can continue in this world. Will we never learn to live together in peace?

The martyred children of Lidice

Monday, February 20, 2012

My Best Friend, My Great-Grandfather

Many people never meet their great-grandparents. Others come face-to-face with their great-grands, but the age spread is such that a close relationship does not develop. I was lucky. I not only knew my great-grandfather, but he was my best friend.

Gustav Neumann was a Czech entrepreneur who built a tiny general store in a small village into the largest manufacturer of men’s work clothes and women’s dresses in Central Europe. Although his successes brought him and his family great wealth, he remained a humble, thrifty man. In a restaurant, when rolls or slices of bread were left at the end of dinner, he wrapped them carefully in a napkin and brought them home for a future meal. “Nikdy nevíš” (“You never know”), he used to say.

He may have been thrifty, but he was extremely generous at the same time. He and his sons – my grandfather and great-uncle – donated land for parks and athletic fields to the town, financed cultural events, and performed community service. He is remembered to this day for his generosity during the Great Depression. Despite the fact that business had dried up and customers were not buying, my great-grandfather – whom I called Dědeček – did not lay off a single employee. He paid them while they continued to produce goods which could not be sold.

I grew up in a loving household consisting of my parents and Dědeček and his two sons, Artur and Ota. It was an idyllic life for a little boy who had everything, especially the devotion of his family. Then, suddenly, things changed.

The Germans invaded our country and decided that everyone in our family except for Mother and me had to be removed from the face of the earth. My mother and I were Catholics – all the others were Jews. I knew nothing about this and failed to understand why my father escaped to join the British Army and other family members began to disappear, one-by-one. Soon, no one was left except for Dědeček, Mother, and me. The Germans threw us out of our home, and we went to live on a farm.

Mother worked in the fields from sunrise to sundown, and I was not allowed outside the farm walls. Dědeček and I were one another’s only company. We would talk endlessly, with my great-grandfather regaling me with stories about his world travels and telling me that, someday, things would be better and I would become a world-famous explorer. We would walk around the farm, with Dědeček’s large calloused hand gently holding my pudgy little hand as he would guide me from building to building, animal to animal. We were the best of friends – this 82-year-old patriarch and his six-year-old great-grandson.

Then came April 21, 1942, the most devastating moment of my young life. Dědeček informed me that he was leaving on a trip, but I felt that something was wrong. Something was more than wrong. The Nazis murdered him in the Treblinka death camp a few months later.

In 1945 when the war ended, my father returned a war hero and Mother came back from a slave labor camp. We waited for the rest of our family to return. No one did. I did not know why I had no cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents or great-grandfather.  Trying to protect me from the horrific memories of the Holocaust, my parents shielded me from the truth until I reached adulthood in America. Only then did I discover what had happened to my best friend.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Writing my long journey home

At book signings and in various social settings, I am invariably asked: “What made you decide to write your book?” It’s a simple question without a simple answer. I began to give it passing thoughts in the early 1990s when I began an emotional journey of reconnecting with my native country of Czechoslovakia. My father had passed away and my mother was frail and often ill. It was then that I began to appreciate the horrors and unspeakable hardships my parents had endured during their lifetimes and the incredible courage which had pulled them – with me in tandem – through it all.

My initial intention was to record the saga of our family for our son, his children, and those who will follow them in the future. But, as I began to read vignettes from my journals to teachers and fellow writers, colleagues who assured me that they were not merely stroking my ego, repeatedly said to me: “Your story isn’t just for your family; it has important historical value.” One even told me: “Anne Frank was the most important child of the 20th century. She died. You managed to survive, and your story must be told.” When I spoke with young people and discovered how little they knew about World War II, I was swayed even more. Reading the venomous words of Holocaust deniers who are determined to make the world forget six million murdered souls sealed the deal for me. I had to bear witness.

Writing had been my hobby from the time I fell in love with the English language. While pursuing my multiphase career as an engineer, an academic, an entrepreneur, and a venture capitalist, I always wrote on the side. I was a newspaper columnist and a magazine freelancer, and I even authored a small technical book. But, I had never written anything resembling a memoir. To my astonishment, the journey toward becoming a memoirist has taken ten years. It has consisted of taking tens of classes, consultations with accomplished writers, suggestions and encouragement from my writers’ group, and reading a ton of books. And, of course: writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, and more rewriting.

My first breakthrough came when Mladá Fronta, one of the largest publishers in the Czech Republic, published the Czech translation of my memoir, titled Dlouhá cesta domů, in April 2011. Now, finally, English speakers are reading Prague:My Long Journey Home. They tell me they like it. I am elated.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A beautiful World War II story - told in three minutes

My friend Ted Armour sent me this moving film clip, titled Porcelain Unicorn, by American director, Keegan Wilcox. It was the winner -- out of 600 entries -- of a global film-making contest, "Tell It Your Way." Incredible story -- told in a mere three minutes. Click here and have a tissue ready.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Invitation to February 15 reading/signing at Maryland Hall

If you live in the vicinity, I would like to invite you to Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts on Wednesday, February 15. I will be telling the story of my book, Prague: My Long Journey Home, followed by a reading and signing. The session is sponsored by the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers' Association and all first-time attendees are free.

If you have my book, please bring it and I'll be happy to sign it. For others, books will be available at the meeting. We'll begin at 6:30 pm in Room 205.

Maryland Hall is located at 801 Chase Street. Take Spa Road from its intersection with West Street at Westgate Circle, and turn left at the "Maryland Hall" sign. I hope to see you there on the 15th!