Although I’m not a huge fan of historical books, the byline of this one really got my attention. “The true story of a man who, at the age of nine, shot a Nazi.” Sound exciting? I sure thought so, and proceeded to dive in to this personal tale of how Charles Heller survived the Holocaust in the early years of his life.
The book begins with a happy and carefree version of the events of Heller’s childhood. Surrounded by parents, aunts, uncles, a grandfather, and great-grandfather, he had a warm and loving family that surrounded and protected him. He details the great history of Czechoslovakia, and how it rose to prominence in the years leading up to the great World Wars. However, as he soon points out, things began to change. His family began to visit less, and their conversations became more tense and worrisome. Heller’s great-grandfather, who owned the largest and most profitable clothing factory in the country, began to realize that what he had built would soon be put to the test. Not only did his factory employ hundreds of locals, but the proceeds from his work were recycled back in to the community, providing money for arts, culture, and education in the region. All of Heller’s family loved their country and were extremely nationalistic, as were most Czechs at the time, and it distressed all of them greatly when their sense of pride for their homeland was trampled by the invading German forces. Heller then goes on to give a harrowing account of the war from his point of view, with near-misses with German forces and Czech-born German sympathizers alike. Although the majority of his family is killed, he describes the herculean effort that his mother goes through to ensure that her son is safe and that they find food and shelter despite the tightening noose around them. Chock full of stories like this, Heller’s work continues on to describe the rest of his wartime experience, as well as his life after the war ended. Additionally, he goes on to tell us just how he got involved with that pistol and the Nazi at age nine…
Overall, I felt that Heller’s work was incredibly informative, at times reading more like a history book than actual memoir as he described the rich history of Czechoslovakia. The decline of his family after the Nazi invasion was quite sad, especially considering all the good that his family did for their local town and the nation as a whole. Heller is a great storyteller, but on that same note it also provided the only flaw I found in this work: its pace. From the advertising, it seemed like an exciting tale of his experiences with WWII Germany’s occupation of his town. Although we eventually got there, it took a while. The first chapters that contained a ton of history on Czechoslovakia were what really dragged down the pace at first. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite interesting, and perhaps it’s only because I’m not a huge history buff, but it made the pace slow a bit too much for me. Fortunately though, once Heller began with the Nazi invasion, things really took off. I felt for him as we see everything he knows taken from him: his family, friends, home, and pride. He’s a lost boy who must learn to grow up way too fast. His tales of his mother’s bravery and foresight to protect her son are incredible (even after she is taken to a slave camp she manages to get out and reunite with her son). I could never imagine going through the horrors that he must have. His anger at the Germans, as well as at his own countrymen for their lack of fight during the invasion was definitely understandable. I think it was probably quite therapeutic for Heller to write this work and share his experiences with us. I applaud him on a job well done and a wonderful memoir that many can enjoy for years to come.
4 out of 5 Stars
Prague: My Long Journey Home by Charles Ota Heller
Abbott Press (2011)
Paperback: 272 pages
Special thanks to Author Solutions for providing my review copy!