Prague: My Long Journey Home is a different kind of Holocaust memoir, giving readers access to information via a unique personal story. Son of a mixed marriage, Ota Karel Heller was born in Czechoslovakia three years before the Nazi occupation of his country. Raised a Catholic, he was unaware of his Jewish roots, even after his father escaped and fifteen members of his family disappeared. He was denied the rights to attend school and to live with many of life’s necessities. Later in the war, before his Christian mother was taken away to a slave labor camp, she hid him on a farm in order to protect him from deportation to a death camp. All the while, he was told that the persecution stemmed from the fact that “your father is in the British army, fighting against the Germans.” This made his suffering a point of pride despite the fact that he faced danger every day. During the waning days of the war, he picked up a loaded revolver thrown away by the retreating occupiers and shot an escaping Nazi. He was elated and proud of the fact that, like his father, he had helped to defeat the hated Germans. He was nine years old.
Prague is, concurrently, a riveting adventure story, a moving recollection of a loving family nearly destroyed by the Nazis and a personal account of a long journey of persecution, of struggle and survival in first Nazi- and then Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, of eventual escape from tyranny to America, and of the author’s return to a newly-free Czechoslovakia only to confront the demons of the past which had been buried deep in the recesses of his soul.
It is the narrative of an assimilated American, who left the horrors of the past – and even his name – behind in the Old World to become a successful student, athlete, engineer, educator, entrepreneur, mentor, investor, husband, father, and grandfather in the U.S., only to find confusion and uncertainty following the death of his father and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.
As he reconnects with his native country, he discovers, or perhaps remembers, that he had three Jewish grandparents, and thus – at least genetically — is more Jew than Christian. The memoir recounts his dealing with guilt for having denied the existence of his martyred family members. It concludes with two poignant moments – one in Prague and the other in Jerusalem – which help him make peace with his guilt and to come to the realization that it is spirituality, and not one’s religion – his or anyone else’s – that matters. In a rare moment of clarity, he knows that, going forward, he will no longer hide from his ethnicity and that he will take great pride in telling the true story of his family.