Monday, March 26, 2012

No tears shed

Last week, a man convicted of 28,000 counts of being an accessory to murder was accorded three-quarters of a page in the obituary section of a major national newspaper. When my great-grandfather -- Gustav Neumann - died, no newspaper carried a story about this wonderful man. John Demjanjuk was a native Ukranian who spent many years living the proverbial American Dream in Cleveland before being recognized as a former murdering concentration camp guard. The conviction involved "only" the murders of 28,000 at the Sobibor concentration camp. Demjanjuk also had  been convicted of having been "Ivan the Terrible," a sadistic gas-chamber operator at the Treblinka death camp. More than 800,000 souls were murdered there -- among them, my great-grandfather. My only regret is that Demjanjuk died a natural death. He deserved one more painful and more public.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I am pleased by the fact that 30 reviews of my book have been posted on Amazon,com (28 of them with a five-star rating). The latest was written by Dr. William G. Durden, President of Dickinson College:

PRAGUE: MY LONG JOURNEY HOME is a memoir that confronts a myriad of haunting human questions--loss, identity, longing, love, sense of place, exile, spirituality and religion, uncertainty, denial, honesty, secrets, movement and displacement, disillusion, revenge and death. The author, Charles Ota Heller, knows that an intensely lived life is neither singular nor linear; rather, it is composed of the subtle intermingling of many dispositions and human impulses--everything is ultimately connected. For example, after learning of his true identity as a Jew after decades of denial and looking forward to a new life in America, he discovers that what he thought was the case is not so. But that realization is immediately linked by him to thoughts about his own life and his possible self-delusion: "I had dreamed of an American utopia where every one loved everyone else, a country without the prejudices and hatreds I had witnessed in Europe....I was even more devastated when I began reading about vicious American anti-Semitism in the 1930s and, later, America's failure to do anything about stopping the murder of six million Jews in death camps....Many years later, when I would begin to wonder about the reasons for having suppressed knowledge of my true ethnicity, I would think back on these discoveries. Had I been ignorant of my background, had I been in a state of deliberate denial, or had I simply feared the truth?" A persona of hope, longing and possible happiness after a harrowing childhood in a war-time Czechoslovakia is ultimately broken by disillusionment induced by a globally shared reality of prejudice and denial. The persistence of these dispositions induces personal doubts about what is and what isn't the case--about the world and himself. And while Charles writes a life story against a background of WWII atrocities and the elimination of many of those family members closest to him, he never loses an affirmation for life as witnessed in his delineation of the joy within small details of daily routines. It is this childlike innocence and playfulness amidst horror that offer the reader a powerful and lasting lesson for living in an imperfect and dangerous world--One example: "Two things which America will never match are Czech bread and beer....Although we had a large refrigerator in our Prague apartment, neither bread nor beer were kept there. Bread had to be fresh from the oven, and beer had to be fresh from the tap. Each evening before dinner, I was sent to the pub across the street with a pitcher....If my parents noticed that the beer pitcher was never quite full when I brought it home, they never let on. Like any Czech boy, I learned to love the national drink at an early age." PRAGUE: MY LONG JOURNEY HOME deserves to be placed with Andre Aciman's OUT OF EGYPT as a "must read" about loss, exile, anger and reconciliation with a place that once left, holds on for literally, dear life.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review of my book in Outlook by the Bay magazine

Hello, friends! I am very anxious and excited to share a review of my memoir that was written by Vicki Duncan of Outlook by the Bay magazine.

Please, read on:

Local author Charles Ota Heller begins his compelling memoir with scenes of his early childhood in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Throughout years of persecution and hiding, with his education interrupted multiple times, his family splintered and his safety threatened, Heller survived and thrived to fully embrace the American dream of success. This is the story of his journey, but it is so much more. It is the story of a loving family, of blood ties, of devotion and of the strength of the human spirit.

Early on, this well-written narrative pulls the reader into a complex and sinister world as seen through the eyes of a young boy from a mixed marriage. With a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Heller, raised as a Catholic and unaware of his Jewish roots, becomes one of the “hidden children.” The author’s voice is authentic and clear as he describes his confusion at the taunts of his former friends, his grief at losing his beloved great-grandfather, his anger at the restrictions imposed upon him for his safety and his longing for his absent parents. Much later, his memories will make you smile as he recounts his first taste of Coca-Cola and confesses his enduring fondness for Spam—a staple of the CARE packages that sustained his family in the refugee camps.

If you are searching for a World War II era memoir to read, you can find books that recount more harrowing scenes of violence and more moments of high stakes drama. That is not to minimize the danger and profound losses that the author’s family suffered. But what makes this book stand out from the others is not those types of details. Rather, it is the author’s ability to firmly plant the reader within the time period and to expertly weave the often tragic and sadly neglected history of the Czech Republic around a central gem of a story of survival.

Your heart will be moved as you follow this family’s struggle, sacrifice and courage. And you will be left with feelings of warmth and admiration as you see how the author, with integrity and courage of his own, confronts and resolves his past with his present. Don’t miss this book, which was recently awarded the “Mark of Quality” by Writer’s Digest. 
What do you think? I'm very touched by her kind review and hoping it will inspire others to read my story!

To view the article in Outlook by the Bay, click here (article is on page 36).

You can pick up your copy today on (available for Kindle, too!).

Monday, March 12, 2012

On Being a Memoirist

Courtesy of Anne Arundel Community College

I envy my novelist friends. Throughout my writing career, I have had to stick with the facts. This began in high school, where I was a sports editor writing about games I and others played. It continued in college, where I was a reporter, and later editor, for an engineering magazine. Throughout four phases of my professional careeras an engineer, a college professor, an entrepreneur CEO, and a venture capitalistI wrote factual technical reports, business plans, memos, and annual reports. Those were my “day jobs.” My writing of nonfiction extended into my then-avocation: newspaper columnist and freelance writer on subjects ranging from skiing and sailing to entrepreneurship.

When I entered the current state of my lifethat of a full-time author of bookswhat genre did I choose? That of memoir. After years of silence, I decided to share my experiences as a “hidden child” living in Europe under Nazi rule and the trauma of coming to grips with my ethnicity and nationality. I wanted to tell my “coming to America” story and to relate tales of entrepreneurial terror, something I am doing now, as sequels to Prague: My Long Journey Home.

Yet, I envy the novelists. In our writers’ group, I listen to my colleagues develop characters, build intriguing plots, and invent conflicts. When they run into dead ends, if their story drags, or when a great idea strikes them in the middle of the night, they simply rewrite the story to make it more interesting for the reader.

As a memoirist, I don’t have the freedom to improve the story. That trite old saying, “it is what it is,” must have been invented by a fellow memoir writer. Oh, sure, I take some liberties with dialogue because I don’t remember exactly what my great-grandfather said to me when I was four years old. However, the meaning and impact of that conversation must be grounded in fact. While I may have to guess at some minute details, the essence of the scene must be true.

So, yes, I do sometime begrudge my novelist friends their freedom from the constraint of truth-telling. I also envy them for their imagination and inventiveness in spinning a great tale. Because I don’t possess that talent, and since some of us have to record events as they really were, I’ll have to stick to writing true stories – as I remember them.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Our Perfect Storm

While gathering information for my second memoir, tentatively titled Cowboy from Prague, I came across a photo of me at the helm of a sailboat. I have a smile on my face, the sky is blue, and the Atlantic Ocean in the background is smooth. But, oh, what memories of terror this photo brought!

Our sailboat, "Pistol Pete"
In 1986, when the shot was taken, Sue and I had been racing sailboats for more than twenty years. That spring, we had purchased a new boat, and my crew and I had spent evenings practicing and weekends racing unsuccessfully, while becoming familiar with our new vessel. So, it came as quite a relief when a friend asked me if our crew and I would like to cruise his new boat to Annapolis, Maryland, from Bermuda after he and his crew would race it in the Bermuda race. We accepted eagerly and looked forward to flying to Bermuda and then enjoying a leisurely sail to Annapolis. This sounded terrific to a group which was tired of training and losing races.

In Bermuda, I checked with the Naval Air Station on weather and the position of the Gulf Stream. Other than a large depression off Charleston, SC, and a small one near Newport, RI, there was nothing unusual awaiting us. At least, so said the Navy meteorologist who assured me that we would not be affected by the two lows on his map.

Our crew -- consisting of Sue, our son, David, and three male friends -- cleared customs and weighed anchor from St. Georges at noon on a sunny Saturday. The sailing was smooth for the first three hours. In mid-afternoon, the seas began to build and continued to grow for the next four hours. By dusk, we were climbing mountains -- waves which were as tall as our boat, a 41-footer. Allowing for the depths of the troughs and the heights of the swells, we were heading straight into 20-foot seas.

We had reduced sail to a minimum, ran the engine, and took the waves at 45-degree angles. Steering took an enormous amount of strength and, with everyone but the two of us seasick by now, only David and I could helm the boat, taking twenty-minute shifts at the oversize wheel. All of us were in foul-weather gear, wearing life jackets and harnesses which were clipped to wires running the length of the boat.

Actually, we had managed to get the boat under some control when the effects of the smaller depression -- eight-foot waves hitting us broadside -- began to roll in. Now, we were in our own "perfect storm." The boat slammed and shuttered after every wave, and any movement by the crew became nearly impossible.

For one and a half days, we went virtually without sleep, David and I were dog tired, and the rest of the crew was too sick to be of any use. The night was particularly terrifying because it was obvious that, if anyone was swept overboard, there would be no hope of finding him or her. But, like all storms, this one, too, came to an end. At the end of the ordeal, we discovered that all our instruments had shorted out. As we began to recover, dry out, and make repairs, we realized that we would have to navigate by compass and sextant, just like the ancient mariners. A second, though lesser, horror show followed when we hit tropical heat and major thunderstorms in the Gulf Stream. A final scare came when our faulty navigation took us north of Cape Fear, NC, instead of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

The photo of the serene-looking captain (me) was taken after a kind tugboat captain put us on the correct course and slowed down his ship so that we could follow him to Norfolk and to the safety of the Chesapeake Bay. There are times when a picture is not worth a thousand words!