Cowboy from Prague: An Immigrant's Pursuit of the American Dream
By: Charles Ota Heller
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Publication Date: July 19, 2022
Reviewed by: Katie Specht
Review Date: August 24, 2022
From award-winning author Charles Ota Heller comes his newest memoir, Cowboy from Prague. This inspiring and triumphant tale chronicles Charles’s life, beginning as he and his family narrowly escape a ruthless Communist government in Czechoslovakia. Armed with their entire lives packed in just three suitcases, Charles and his family board a ship headed for America and the hope of the American dream.
At the tender age of 12, Charles is told by his father that their family will be leaving the country to begin a new life in America, and that he must be brave because they will be crossing the border and it will be dangerous. Despite this grim warning, Charles does not find himself frightened because he has full confidence in his father taking care of him and his mother. The escape itself is comprised of many steps, including spending one night in a hotel, abandoning their car in a field, taking separate busses, riding a train to a village near the German border and finally, walking three hours through a dark, scary forest. At long last, Charles and his family reach the US Zone of Germany and they are free.
Charles’s adjustment to life in the United States happens quite rapidly. The first summer of living there, his father sends him off to camp with a friend for three weeks. Charles is horrified at the idea of this as he does not yet speak any English, and he is afraid that the other kids will make fun of him for not being able to communicate with them. Surprisingly, the exact opposite happens. The other kids take Charles under their wing, encouraging him to participate in various activities and teaching him new sports. When Charles returns home from camp, he is able to speak rudimentary English.
As Charles grows older, he makes decisions regarding where to attend college and what sports to play at the collegiate level. Charles earns three degrees in engineering, including one at the doctoral level. Charles also meets and falls in love with Sue, who would become his wife in June of 1959. After a few years of marriage, Charles and Sue are thrilled to learn that she is pregnant, and will give both sides of the family their first grandchild. The happy couple is overjoyed to welcome their son in April 1964, but future challenges would emerge as they venture into parenthood.
Charles Ota Heller has truly achieved the American dream. He escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia as a young boy, coming to America with nothing more than what he carried in a few suitcases. He knew no English, and yet, he earned three engineering degrees, including one Doctorate. He has successfully sustained numerous careers, including those of an engineer, a professor, an author, an investor, and an entrepreneur.
Heller’s writing throughout is deeply engaging, as he invites you into his most personal thoughts and feelings. After reading this memoir, you will feel as if you know Heller personally. His writing is real, raw, often humorous, and vibrant. Heller is truly the epitome of a person who seizes the day and makes every moment count, and this is evident in his writing.
Quill says: Heller has penned a poignant, compelling story of one man’s grit and determination to make the most of his life, even during the most traumatic of circumstances. Heller’s dream to make it in a free country came true in more ways than he ever could have imagined, but through all of his successes, he never forgot where he came from.
To learn more about Cowboy from Prague: An Immigrant's Pursuit of the American Dream, please visit the author’s website at: charlesoheller.com.
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The book was recommended by a schoolmate from my elementary school in Communist Czechoslovakia. Several of her friends echoed the sentiment based on good reviews. The one attached to the recommendation was penned by Diane Donovan in Midwest Book Review. Ms. Donovan stated that the "book represents more than a singular life or experience. It's the voice of a nation with a history of taking in those less fortunate and providing avenues of success unavailable in any other country, and it follows the successes and failures of America's own dreams and promises." That is truly an enormous claim.
I was intrigued and jarred by the following quote of Charles Ota Heller who "wrote Cowboy from Prague in support of enlightened Americans—those who not only understand the economic benefits of immigration, but who believe that taking in human beings in distress is what this country has always done—whose voices will drown out the insults and bravado of the haters.” I was curious whether I was an “enlightened American” or a “hater” in the author's “book”. So I purchased the Kindle version and read it to find the answer.
Since immigration is the central concept of the memoir, having escaped from Czechoslovakia a quarter of a century after Mr. Heller, I was eager to learn as much as I could about his immigrant experiences. In 1975 I read the heavily autobiographical novel A co Václav [What about Wenceslas], by another Czech Jewish immigrant of Mr. Heller's generation. Jan Drábek escaped with his family at the age of 13, also in 1948. He considered himself an exile fighting to liberate his homeland, as I did, rather than a refugee. As Adela Muchova wrote in her 2006 Simon Fraser University Master thesis, Drábek's "perceptions of the historical traumas" which sent him into exile "emphasizes, above all...the 'external' or political attitude in contrast to the 'internal' or existential approach…" Because of Heller's explicitly political purpose of his writing the memoir, echoed by the several of the notes of praise inside the book cover, my political radar was turned on.
Far from being a discourse on virtues of the immigration to the United States phenomenon, as one might expect upon learning of the author's explicit reason for writing the book, Cowboy from Prague: An Immigrant’s Pursuit of the American Dream is actually a personal inventory of an accomplished man's life. No wonder. Drábek's father was a lawyer and very much involved in the political life of the country. Participating in domestic resistance during WWII, he spent several years in prison and Auschwitz. Heller's family background is multiple generations of business. As a Czech patriot, his father also fought, but abroad, with the British Army. 25 family members perished in the holocaust.
The very first words, lines and following paragraphs of Chapter One: Escape, revealed the first of many touch points my life shares with Dr. Heller's. Just as he and his parents, I arrived in Aš in hope of getting to "the other side". I wish I could have done it by walking for three hours through the woods. At least I got to work a few yards away from the barbed wire fences and watch tower for four months, trying to cross. There was nobody waiting to bring me to the starting point and show me the way. However, the world had changed since the Heller's family crossing.
My first memories are of the time when I was three years old. I wish Mr. Heller shared his, if he has any of that age at the start of the war. My childhood traumatic experiences were different and of another time, but not unrelated.
I craved to learn any detail about his life of hiding, the circumstances of his grandpa and then his mother being taken away. But he was only nine years old at the end of the war and that's a long time ago.
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God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has truly blessed Charles Ota Heller. He had great upbringing, advice, support and models to emulate. His parents sacrificed to allow him to achieve anything his mind could conceive. And he did. When he arrived, the post-war industrial/military complex was short of people with the technical education and skills the intelligent, hard-driven Chuck Heller obtained quite quickly. He made many friends, became a real American, made great contributions in business and academia and has been enjoying the best of what this country has to offer in all areas of his varied interests, including basketball, skiing, sailing, golfing, writing and other pursuits.
In addition to the general culture shock immigrants experience and being singled out as a target of anti-immigrant labels, young Mr. Heller was deeply shaken by encounters with overt expressions of racism and institutionalized racial segregation epitomized by separate drinking fountains. That apparently became the foundation of his politics for the rest of his life, as it has for many European Jew immigrants and their offspring. He was proud to have helped elect John F. Kennedy to the Office of the United States President.
"Despite the fact that they lived in an upscale community, the Holstens [author's future in-laws] were as poor as we were, and Sue had to work in order to have a little spending money. … Sue’s father Ed … a career bus garage supervisor for Public Service of New Jersey…worked two additional jobs—as a part-time police officer and as a clubhouse bartender—in order to be able to afford to live in their ritzy community." This is Mr. Heller's idea of what poverty is. Mr. Holsten was not poor, but an aspirational, working middle class man, who had a government job with a pension. (The State of New Jersey established the Public Employee’s Retirement System [PERS] in 1955 to replace the former State Employees’ Retirement System.)
A year after arriving in America, "My parents purchased a new 1949 Studebaker Champion car and a small house… they were able to save enough money to pay cash for the car and to make a fifty-percent down payment on the home, while taking out a five-year mortgage on the balance. … The cost of the house was $14,500 (around $160,000 in today’s dollars). While modest by our family’s pre- and post-war standards in Czechoslovakia, it was our little piece of America." Imagine the poor in 2022 America which is in debt to the tune of $31 trillion, being able to save enough money in a year and purchase a modest home with $80,000 cash down and a 5-year $80,000 mortgage.
"Our neighbors, one house removed, became our family’s closest friends. Jack Geils was vice president of Bell Telephone Laboratories…" When young Charles Heller graduated from high school in June 1954, he "had a summer job waiting … as a junior draftsman at Bell Telephone Laboratories, thanks to our family friend and neighbor, Jack Geils." The "poor" Hellers and Mr. Geils lived in "middle-class neighborhood, with its modest homes on small lots…" That was just one of the lucky breaks God provided the author.
I respect Mr. Heller's achievements. I also appreciate his life's journey and his final attempt to solve his identity puzzle and find peace. However, it appears his hundred-hour work-week lifestyle practiced for decades has prevented him from learning anything new when it comes to the American society at large beyond the confines of his business, academia and social environs. As a young child he was traumatized by the National Socialist German Workers Party's expansion of the Third Reich into his homeland and my country of origin. My parents lived through the war in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the Slovak State, an ally of Hitler's regime. In addition to the hunger and abuse suffered during the wartime, they were traumatized and psychologically destroyed by the Communist regime, just as untold number of others.
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Charles Heller never heard of basketball before arriving in the U.S. For me, it was the American Dream concept I learned of only after my arrival. My reason for putting my life on the line to escape full employment, free education, free health care and the mantra of "from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs" was a visceral need to be free and search for truth.
The truth is that Mr. Heller's America was being rapidly transformed in every way just as I arrived. The Marxists were taking over political science departments of American universities in the early ‘70s as the country was being deindustrialized and the working people's American Dream crushed. My college campus halls were adorned with banners like Maoism is the way, and Transcendental Meditation - Not Jesus. The professors were enlightening me with their tales of dead white men being at the root of all evil. Young Spartacus League members trying to recruit me were explaining how misguided I was regarding what the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia I lived through was all about.
Back to the Cowboy from Prague: "The invasion opened the floodgates of emigration. Thousands of Czechs and Slovaks fled to the West. This generation of refugees, which became known as the 'class of 1968' (as opposed to our 'class of 1948') arrived in America in relative comfort. They flew in directly via PanAm, whereas our 'class' had come on overcrowded Liberty ships, and only after spending many months in refugee camps. There was no love lost between the two classes of Czechoslovak refugees. Members of our class resented the ease with which people who had opted to live under Communist rule for twenty years were able to enter the United States." I guess Mr. Heller never heard of Treiskirchen refugee camp, electrified barbed wire fences, mines, watch towers and other appurtenances at the border between Czechoslovakia and the West. Until the Berlin wall was erected, even the border with communist East Germany was secured in the same way. Also, by 1968 at least Western Europe had fully come out of WWII devastation, thanks to Marshall Plan and military defense provided by American soldiers and financed by American taxpayers, while expanding the socialist welfare state.
Once again, Mr. Heller's own words: "Although I had written much of the material previously, I attribute the idea for Cowboy from Prague: An Immigrant’s Pursuit of the American Dream to the events leading up to the presidential election of 2016, a period during which millions of Americans came out of the proverbial woodwork to demonize immigrants—to deny refugees access to this country and to tell immigrants who grew up here to leave. When I woke up on Wednesday, November 9, I thought of a morning some sixty-seven years before, when the beautiful Lady Liberty seemed to step forward out of the morning mist to welcome us to America. Now I wondered if the Lady had tears streaming down her face because the immigrant-haters had won." Perhaps Mr. Heller might had gone to Martha's Vineyard to prove his concern for immigrants, trafficked by the Mexican drug cartels who control our southern border, and convinced Barack Hussein Obama and his neighbors there not to evict all 50 of the poor souls within 48 hours to a military base. Let the great unwashed house, feed, compete with, and provide free benefits to the additional 5,000,000 illegal aliens intercepted since the installation of the “10% to the big guy” “Beijing” Joe Biden in the office at an inauguration held behind razor wire fences. Just this week, the House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would allow illegal aliens to vote in our elections less than 50 days away. Just as this book was published right on time in the last ditch effort to preserve the regime.
The hubris of the "enlightened" among the people in the top 1-5% income bracket and those who provide services to them for a living, helping them to protect their construct of the world gone by that they've benefited from, is nothing new.
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I lived through the old-fashioned military invasion and coup d'état as well as the first four years of the "normalization" period that followed the "entry of brotherly armies onto the territory of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic". Yes, they were actually invited by the members of the unreformed wing of the Politburo of the Communist Party. According to my father, the rest of the "normalization" period was much worse than the red terror of the late '40s and early '50s. I wouldn't know. But I can tell you, that what I'm living through now is a much more pervasive and effective normalization period. Total information blackouts in the “legacy” media, largest scale censorship and destruction of people's businesses, denying people ability to earn a living in their profession for expressing their political or professional opinion or even just sharing empirical results of their scientific inquiry, or kicking them out of the digital public square controlled by a handful of oligarchs working hand in hand with Government security services to suppress dissent, employing GeStaPo, StaSi, StB and KGB type of unconstitutional methods to persecute opposition leaders and ordinary folks.
If the official statistics of the 2020 Presidential elections were actually correct, it would mean 81 million voters are perfectly content with their corrupt leader declaring the other 74 million voters enemies of the State, mothers attempting to protect their children by speaking up at school board meetings "domestic terrorists", etc. Anywhere between one half and three quarters of Americans are labeled “white nationalists”, even though the Make America Great Again movement is a coalition of people of all skin color shades, ethnic origins, sexual orientations, and any other demographic descriptor. But as Joe Biden told black Americans: “If you don’t vote for me, you ain’t black.” Destruction of America and its people is happening with lightning speed. Digital occupation is a vast improvement on the old weapons of war.
It is a sad day. I pray that Mr. Heller avails himself of new information sources. Otherwise he might get a bigger shock than the discovery he made in 2014 about his maternal grandmother, Marie Kozušníková: "Her husband was a member of the Waffen SS—the worst kind of murdering Nazi.” He will have been complicit in the destruction of the American Republic (yes, not a democracy, as he was reminded during his citizenship exam) and erasing freedom, as planned by the alliance of the fascist World Economic Forum technocrats and bankers, and the transnational criminal organization known as the Chinese Communist Party. The plan, hiding in plain sight, is already being executed by the Great Reset-reflecting policies and executive orders of the Party of Davos regime with the father of the "smartest guy I know', (i.e. the creator and compiler of content on his "laptop from hell"), allegedly in charge.
I've never watched "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". But the Cowboy from Prague was up to the job. I enjoyed some of it very much. But I wish Mr. Heller would have kept to the Czech maxim: "Ševče, drž se svýho kopyta. [Cobbler, stick to your last.]"
1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.