Charles Heller learned he was part Jewish only when his relatives began to disappear.
This piece is one of 10 winners of our 2022 Profile Contest. You can find more here. Talia Dauer, the author, is 17 and goes to Greenhill School in Addison, Texas.
Hidden Child, Hidden Identity: The Story of a Holocaust Survivor
by Talia Dauer
At the mere age of 9, Charles Heller found a gun and shot a man who was a Czech Nazi collaborator.
“I stood up, aimed at the guy and shot him, thinking I had killed him. At that point, it was just total exhilaration. I felt like I had just single-handedly won the war. The town historian fact-checked it, and I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I hadn’t killed a German,” Heller shared.
Prague native Charles Heller’s life was uprooted at age 3 by World War II. Although he was raised Catholic by his mother, having three Jewish grandparents marked him as a Jew under the Nazi Nuremberg Laws.
Following the war, his family escaped Communism and came to New Jersey, where he assimilated, eliminating all clues of his European origins. He discovered a passion for basketball and was recruited to play at Oklahoma State University, where he also earned two engineering degrees. His memoir, “Prague: My Long Journey Home,” depicts his life throughout the war.
Dr. Heller’s story lends insight into the impacts of childhood trauma on identity formation and one’s life trajectory.
What was life like before the Holocaust?
Before the Holocaust, I had only lived a very short time, because I was 3 when the war started. I was raised Catholic in a close but odd family in terms of religion, which caused our problems. I didn’t know what a Jew was, but our household was full of Jewish men.
Do you remember when the Nazis came to power?
You remember experiencing traumatic events. I remember my relatives beginning to disappear around 1940. I didn’t understand why. By late 1940 or early 1941, my mother and great-grandfather were the only family left. Others escaped or were taken to concentration camps.
What happened during the war?
The Germans gave us 24 hours to clear out of our home with what we could carry. We were taken in by the Tuma farmer family. Being considered Jewish, I wasn’t allowed to attend school. My mother worked in the fields. My great-grandfather fed the animals wearing his only clothing, a three-piece suit. Jews were required to wear the Star of David. I became best friends with my great-grandfather, but in April 1942 I found him standing with a suitcase. He said “I’m just going on a short vacation.” We took him to the train station and never saw him again. He was taken to Terezin and later murdered at Treblinka [both concentration camps]. I was hidden for the last year and a half of the war, after my mother was taken away to a slave labor camp. The Tumas, Ms. Tuma particularly, hid me when the Nazis came looking for me.
Please tell me about Ms. Tuma.
She was Catholic. She was my savior. I have a painting of her in a native dress. I look at it and thank her every day.
What happened after the war?
My mother returned to the farm, and two days later my father rode in on a motorcycle wearing his British Army uniform. It was the happiest day of my life. The saddest part is we were the only survivors. We lost 25 family members. We moved back to Prague, and in January 1948 the Communists took over and named my parents enemies of the state. In February 1948 my father paid people to smuggle us out. A farmer took us to the edge of a forest and said, “Start walking, and if they don’t shoot you first, you’ll be in the U.S. zone of Germany.” After 15 months in refugee camps, we got visas for the U.S.
What was life like in New Jersey?
I spoke two “words” of English — “sank you.” My father gave some edicts: “I want you to become completely Americanized; I want you to forget everything that happened on the other side of the Atlantic; within 12 months, I want you to speak English without an accent.” I fell in love with basketball, and got a scholarship to Oklahoma State.
How has being a childhood survivor shaped your adult life?
War shaped my life in lots of ways. I became more pessimistic. I worry. As much as I’ve lightened up, I always see the worst. I still don’t know a lot about the Jewish religion, but I probably admire Jews more than any other group for what they’ve done in science, humanities, all of these things. If I watch a ballgame on TV and see a Jewish name, I’m immediately rooting for that person. I feel like I have a Jewish soul. That’s probably the biggest thing that’s happened as a result of what I’ve experienced in life.