A Czech recalls his survival of Nazism and Communism in the World War II era.
“One cannot travel far enough to get away from oneself.” That is the eventual realization of Charles Ota Heller, a man who endured German and Soviet oppression as a boy in Czechoslovakia. Heller is born in the mid-nineteen thirties to parents of different religions, one a Jew and the other a Catholic. Nazi occupation divides the family, as his Jewish father escapes the country and fights in the British army. His mother remains behind to defend young Ota (he later changes his name to Charles) and the family assets. They both eventually, and literally, must run for their lives because of the preposterous policy changes that inevitably mark them Jewish. Father, mother, and son survive the war, but at least 15 family members perish. Post war communist takeover pushes them to America, where Ota acculturates, earns a doctorate, and raises a family. Heller’s purpose in telling his story is made very apparent from the book’s beginning. Part of his inspiration comes from a TV spot of Americans who seem quite oblivious to history. That observation, combined with holocaust denial, propels him to question why his own Jewish ancestry was denied. He discusses other struggles too, such as his reaction to Czech peaceful resistance or the Catholic Church’s holocaust role. This sincerity of thought is reflected in the writing’s earnestness. The preface asserts that a memoir should not “play fast and loose with the facts.” Items such as an appropriate and reputable bibliography or Heller’s comments on the role of reconstructed dialog suggest a passion and honesty that effectively engages the reader. Descriptions of martial encounters are informative, but general enough to connect with the non-historian. The travails of escaping at various points becomes slightly exciting, and the last lines of chapters often provide good segues to hold interest. Young Ota’s experience did not include direct witnessing of horrific events characteristic of similar holocaust memoirs, so the story is never emotional in that sense. The reader can certainly identify with the family, but one might not feel a strong emotional connection. Heller does acknowledge the influence of his engineering background resulting in less expressiveness, and perhaps that might be the reason the writing never creates a strong reader-character bond. The book’s subtitle of a nine year old who “shot a Nazi” almost seems overplayed, especially considering the brief description and little direct reference that is made to the incident. The sentiment and last chapter “Coming Full Circle” is slightly clichéd, but overall, the entire story will still appeal to history buffs and memoir enthusiasts.
A passionate and reliable story of survival.