When Charles Ota Heller was only 9, he shot a random stranger whom he thought was a Nazi soldier. The memory of that day still haunts him, more than seven decades later.
“I had taken revenge for everything the Nazis had done — for taking my family from me, for stealing our home and all our possessions, for forcing me to hide like an animal, for desecrating my beloved Czechoslovakia,” said Heller, who now lives in Annapolis with his wife of nearly 60 years, Susan.
Now in his early 80s, Heller was the keynote speaker May 1 at Towson University’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program.
Today, May 2, is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The Towson gathering — presented by the university, the campus Hillel chapter and the Baltimore Jewish Council – was created seven years ago after Dr. Walter “Wali” Gill, an adjunct professor at Towson, visited the Jewish Museum of Maryland and was moved by an exhibition there.
“It’s not just for and about Jewish people,” Gill said of the university’s Holocaust program. “So many people can identify with that terrible time in history. No matter how many survivors you hear, each has a different story. They may be different ages, from different countries, different concentration camps.
“It’s like racism in America,” he said. “It’s often talked about as a single phenomenon, but in fact everyone has their own version of the story.”
Jeanette Parmigiani, the BJC’s director of Holocaust programs, praised survivors like Heller and their descendants for telling their stories in public.
“The lessons of the Shoah have not been learned,” she said. “The Holocaust began not with bullets but with words. You can make a difference. What you do matters. These survivors are talking about the worst possible things that you could imagine, but they feel an obligation to help younger generations understand what happened and what can happen again.”
A retired engineer, educator and entrepreneur, Heller spoke during the program mostly of his wartime experiences, largely drawing from his 2011 autobiography, “Prague: My Long Journey Home” (Abbott Press).
While his father was a non-practicing Jew, Heller’s mother was a devout Catholic. But when the Nazi army moved into his homeland, being half-Jewish was not enough to protect Heller — or his mother.
“Do I have any rights at all?” Heller said his mother asked a Gestapo officer after being informed that her liberties would be severely curtailed because she married a Jew.
“For now,” he said the officer responded, “you’re allowed to live.”
Heller said 25 members of his family perished in Auschwitz, Treblinka and other concentration camps. His father escaped the Nazis and eventually joined the British army. Heller’s mother was taken to a slave labor camp.
Heller said that he personally only survived because his mother hid him on a farm.
Both of Heller’s parents also survived the war, and the family immigrated to the United States in 1949 and resettled in Morristown, N.J.
After coming to this country, Heller said his father insisted that he take the American-sounding name of Charles. “My father wanted me to become 100 percent American, to forget that I’d had a life on the other side of the ocean,” he said. “I learned to speak without an accent. I played basketball in college.”
Heller helped create the aerospace engineering program at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and went on to receive a doctorate from Catholic University of America.
Regarding that traumatic day in 1945 when he thought he killed a Nazi, Heller said he and a couple of childhood friends had ventured out of hiding and found uniforms, weapons and other supplies discarded by German soldiers who deserted their posts because of the Allies’ imminent arrival. Heller said he picked up a Walther pistol from the side of a road, tucked it into his waistband and later shot the man because of a dare from one of his young friends. They assumed he was a Nazi.
“When I shot that man, I felt as if I had singlehandedly won the war,” Heller said. “For most of my young life, I had been running and hiding. Now finally, I had struck back.”
But while researching his autobiography a decade ago, Heller said he learned that the man was not a German soldier but a Czech collaborator. He said he also discovered that his victim did not die but escaped to Germany after recovering from his wound.
Now, almost 75 years later, Heller, who has a son and three grandchildren, said he believes that telling his story in public continues to be his revenge for what his family endured during the Holocaust.
On May 5, at 4:30 p.m., the Baltimore Jewish Council will present the annual community-wide Holocaust Remembrance Day program at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave. The keynote speaker will be Gretchen Skidmore, director of civic and defense initiatives at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She will speak about “U.S. Efforts to Save Jews during the Holocaust.”
For information, call 410-542-4850 or visit baltjc.org.
For information about Charles Ota Heller, visit charlesoheller.com.
Jonathan Shorr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.