Excerpt from Prague: My Long Journey Home:
Now, the end of the war was only days away. Retreating German occupiers -- soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children -- filled every north- and westbound road out of Prague, hoping to be captured by civilized Americans, rather than brutal Soviets. Wanting to be unarmed when seized, the soldiers were throwing away their military equipment along the way.
Like most Czechs, I found it difficult to believe that our oppressors were really running away. And like the majority of Czechs, I hated every one of them. Along with two boys I met that morning, I walked two kilometers to the Melnik highway, hoping to watch the exodus. The Nazis were gone by the time we arrived. But, in the ditch along the road, we found a treasure trove. There were gas masks, bayonets, helmets, binoculars, clips with bullets -- and guns! I picked up a black Walther revolver and stuck it inside my belt. It was heavy and cold, but it gave me an unexpected jolt of power.
"I'm going to shoot a German," I announced to my friends, as we headed back to Kojetice, each of us with his favorite piece of loot. The boys laughed at my bravado and teased me about having read too many Karl May cowboy and Indian novels.
We returned to the estate where I had been hidden among farmhands and then sneaked into the woods to the edge of the courtyard. We crawled through thick bushes to watch several men and women load boxes onto two gray trucks. A short distance away from us, a tall, blond, Aryan -- a poster child for a Nazi propaganda billboard -- was carrying a small table through a door and toward a truck. The man was dressed in army trousers and boots, was hatless and wore a white undershirt and dark suspenders. The boy named Pepik pulled his newly-obtained gas mask away from his face.
"Well, are you gonna do it?" he whispered.
I stared at him for a long moment, taking his dare as a signal that the man was one of the escaping Germans, and wondering if I had the courage to back up my boast. Finally, I swallowed hard and carefully drew the Walther from my belt. Getting on my feet, cocking the pistol, and assuming a two-handed pose I had seen in American cowboy movies before the war, I aimed at the blond-haired man's chest. I squeezed the trigger. Bam!! The noise was ear-shattering. The pistol recoiled and flew out of my hand, and I was propelled into the bushes.
"You got him!" screamed Pepik.
I crawled out of the bush and, sure enough, the man was lying on the ground and a woman was screaming in German. Leaving the gun behind, I took off running as fast as I could toward the farmhands' dormitory, with my companions running in different directions. I hid behind the building which had been my sanctuary and waited for what seemed like hours, with my heart pounding wildly. Amazingly, no one followed us. After an initial crush of fear, I experienced an adrenaline rush unlike any I had ever felt before.
"I killed a German," I screamed silently. "I killed a German!"
I did not know if I had really killed him, but I hoped that I had. In that splendid moment, I felt as if I had singlehandedly won the war. For most of my young life, I had been running and hiding from Germans. Now, finally, I had struck back. I had taken revenge for everything they had done to me -- 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. I was nine years old -- and I vowed to keep my triumph a secret.
It would be many years later -- after finally revealing the secret to family and a few friends -- that I would receive startling information which would make me wonder: whom did I shoot that day in May 1945?
Top -- The author and his mother, Ilona, while homeless during the war.
Bottom -- Heller family reunited: Rudolph, Ilona, and Ota (today, Charles)