Charles Novacek, Detroit Author, Writes Memoir, 'Border Crossings: Coming Of Age In The Czech Resistance' (EXCERPT)

10/22/2012 11:42 am ET
  • Ashley C. Woods The Huffington Post

Detroiter Charles Novacek was many things: a civil engineer, painter, husband, father and speaker of seven languages. But those who knew him best understood that the renaissance man carried another story within him -- his boyhood spent in then-Czechoslovakia during its occupation by Nazi and Communist forces. Even fewer knew he began his training with resistance forces as a child of 11. After fighting with the Czech Resistance against the Nazis, Novacek continued to defend his homeland from Communists, enduring imprisonment before he escaped to a refugee camp.

"I think it was too painful for him to talk about wartime," his wife Sandra Novacek told The Huffington Post. "It aroused too much emotion -- sadness and anger. He wanted and needed a more positive existence. And to him it would be a burden and a sign of weakness to bring up these experiences to others."

But Novacek eventually decided to commit his life story to words, all the more remarkable given that he knew no English until moving to America. After passing away in 2007, Sandra Novacek, his second wife, decided to publish his memoir, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance.

"He wanted people (especially other Americans) to know that it important to be vigilant, that freedom is not guaranteed," said Novacek. "Freedom must be nurtured and protected. It must not be taken for granted. Freedom can be taken away at any moment even by those you would least suspect."

HuffPost asked Sandra Novacek to talk more about her husband's childhood in wartime Czechoslovakia, his relationship with the city of Detroit and her commitment to honoring his legacy.

Scroll down to read an excerpt from Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistanceand see photos from the book, which is available at Amazon.com and independent bookstores throughout Detroit.

Why did your husband tell you that he decided to join the Czech Resistance?

Charles did not decide to join the Czech Resistance. He was 11 years old when he was “recruited” by his father and his uncle. His entire immediate family was involved in the resistance. (Father, mother, sister). I think Charles was always proud that his family participated in the effort to preserve and defend freedom for Czechoslovakia and its people who were being persecuted.

It had become a democratic state founded in 1918 by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Masaryk supported independence for Czechoslovaks and other oppressed peoples of Central Europe. He had helped organize the Czechoslovak Legion POWs (of which Charles’ father was one) to fight for an independent Czechoslovak state. Charles’ father greatly admired Masaryk (as did Charles) and put his country above all else.

What do you think his involvement with the Resistance says about him as a man?

Charles was a man who believed in [defending] justice, freedom and equality for all people. This had been ingrained in him by his loving parents. He was a man who would not stand back and watch a “wrong” being committed.

What was your husband's relationship to the city? What did he love about Detroit?

Charles was 28 years old when he and his first wife Valentina came to America from Venezuela. They entered the country through New Orleans, but almost immediately went on to Detroit where Valentina’s family had settled after fleeing from Latvia during World War II. The family lived on the west side of Detroit and that is where Charles lived for a while, ultimately moving to Allen Park and then Southfield.

The focal point for Charles' 31-year-career as an engineer was the City of Detroit. His first big project was the Cobo Hall/Convention Center, then Henry Ford Hospital(s), Chrysler Styling, Detroit People Mover, etc. When working on the People Mover Charles’ office was in a corner office on one of the upper floors of the majestic Book Building. He loved the panoramic view – the remarkable architecture (the blend of the old and the new), the Detroit River, Windsor.. He was not only an engineer who wanted to know how to make things work, but he was a lover of beauty. His dream of being an artist was snuffed out by Hitler. One of the “safest” things to be was an engineer. Luckily, Charles had the intelligence for that.

He grew up in a country with striking landscapes, architecture and art for the public –- statues, sculptures, etc. He found many of these wonders in Detroit. There were no rolling hills and mountains, but there was Belle Isle and the Detroit River. There were the kind and friendly people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Charles spent many of his lunch hours in the landmark Guardian Building, which he called “my sanctuary.” And the “Spirit of Detroit” statue inspired him as did the Carl Milles sculptures: “Transportation” in Detroit and the Orpheus fountain at Cranbrook.

Did he feel hopeful about the city's progress, or feel like his living here contributed in a small way to that rebirth?

Charles said, [In Detroit] I love to see and feel the action.” He also said, “Detroit is where I got my freedom and where I call home.” And so after his first wife died Charles moved back to his town, his home where he realized his version of the American dream. He moved into an upper floor of an apartment building on the Detroit River and made passage to a new phase of his life, to escape the sadness of his loss, to paint and to start writing his story, to be a part of a great city. Charles also wanted to be closer to the vital cultural venues he loved –- the [Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre], etc.

That’s where I come in. I was born in Detroit –- on the same date it was “founded” by the French, July 24. Sharing the same birthday as the city of Detroit (also the birthday of Amelia Earhart, Simon Boliver and J-Lo) was one of my claims to fame and I’ve always been proud of it. My family left the city when I was four to move to the suburbs, but we never cut our ties. My dad worked in the city, we frequented the DIA, DSO, Masonic Temple, Detroit Public Library, Tigers games, shopping venues, restaurants, etc. I completed my Master’s degree in librarianship at Wayne State University. Detroit was my town, too. I loved the same things Charles loved about Detroit plus its Motown and Jazz music.

When we met and decided to join forces, I lived in a small, historic town and had a successful career as a library director. But I was ready for a change and I realized the small town in the country was becoming suburban. It had lost its rural patina that had led me to it. I had lived in several different places in my life, including Europe. I enjoyed small towns, big cities, Victorian farm houses and giant skyscrapers, urban streets and rural cow paths. I figure you have to experience them all. It’s a way to keep learning, growing and discovering what makes you the happiest and helps you to understand and get along with others to preserve peace and make a better world. And, I fell in love with Charles –- I would follow him and go back to my home town of Detroit (for a change)!

I didn’t suffer the traumas of war like Charles, but a similarity in our lives was that we both had was parents who loved us and believed and taught us that we should work hard, be involved in our communities, that we should not be afraid to speak up, that we should fight for what we believe in, that we should respect and help all people including those less fortunate than us, that freedom is something to be cherished and not taken for granted; that the environment and all living things must be respected and cared for; that the arts -- music, literature, etc. are essential for meaningful and productive lives, etc.

We both liked the friendliness and spirit of the Detroiters we met. We knew how to adapt to many situations, we liked the “edginess” of Detroit that made for interesting contrasts. We knew that we could and would help to make a positive difference in the city by showing support and love for it.

Why do you think his story should be told, and what inspired you to publish this book?

Charles inspired me to publish this book, as did the Chinese author Da Chen. When I met him and told him about Charles’ unpublished memoir, he said to me: “He gave you love, now you must give him immortality.” It was Charles’ determination, his will, his love, his sense of humor AND it was part of our agreement when we decided to join forces and marry. I vowed to support his efforts with painting, writing and publishing his story in any way I could, to be loyal. I figured that it was the least I could do after seeing what Charles had endured. It was an important legacy to leave and be carried though to fruition.

For people who never met Charles, what did he bring to the world?

An inner strength and energy that is beyond inspiration. Respect for all living things. An extraordinary ability to love and laugh after having lived through so much hate. Immense artistic talent -- drawing, painting, music. Great courage.

The fact that he SURVIVED as long as he did after ALL that he went through astounds me -- not just through wartime, but through his entire life. For so much of his life he was “the other” an alien.. Charles suffered many traumatic and hideous experiences and yet he kept bouncing back. His resilience was remarkable. His respect for all living things. And he had a remarkable drive to be productive.

Learn more about the Charles Novacek's memoir and life, and below, read an excerpt from Border Crossings: Coming Of Age in the Czech Resistance.

Border Crossings: Photos From The Life Of Charles Novacek

The Wehrmacht was retreating from the Soviets, but as they did, they were also placing explosives to destroy anything the Russians could use.

On April 18, I observed from my bunker how a German demolition squad placed explosives within the structure of the nearby railroad bridge. The rail line was the only link between the capital city of Brno and the southern district of the Moravian province. The soldiers had come in a locomotive to place the charges and stretched the cables to a safe distance. I concluded that whoever would detonate the explosives would have to get there the same way. I also knew that no one else was aware of the Germans’ activity. If the bridge were to be saved, it would be up to me.

The distance from my cave was about 250 yards. None of my own weapons could reach that point accurately, and I knew I only had one shot. If I missed, the chance to save the bridge would be greatly diminished, and I myself would risk discovery.

I needed a long rifle to prevent anyone from reaching the end of the wires and completing the detonation. Only the Germans themselves had such rifles.

On the plain behind the cliff where my bunker lay were hundreds of tanks and trucks; they were the Sixth Panzer Division coming back from Stalingrad, and they had just arrived in our area. At my family’s house the local street narrowed and ended, and then changed into a field trail. Dozens of the trucks lined this street, and I noticed that one of the types of rifles I needed was strapped on the inside of the driver’s door of the last field truck. The truck with the rifle was the closest to the foot of the hill near my bunker in the cliff, but it was also very close to our house.

To prevent discovery, the long rifle had to be stolen at the last possible moment, before the Germans departed. If they found out about the missing rifle, many would suffer for it. There was no room for mistakes. My cue to get the rifle would be the start-­up commotion of all the tanks; the departure of this formidable force would be preceded by the considerable disorder of the soldiers and general turmoil. The land would tremble from the vibrating engines.

I slept with my eyes half open.

In my cave and at home at night, I thought of the devastating consequences to my nation if the bridge were destroyed. After all the conflicts, the impoverished state would not be able to rebuild a rail line for a long time, and without it, lack of communication and industrial exchange would mean more hunger in the large cities and no products or supplies in the south. That bridge was as essential for us as air.

On April 21, 1945, long before dawn, the commander of the retreating Panzer Division received word about Berlin being surrounded by the Soviets; I myself heard it on the news from London. There was no other way out for the Germans. They were afraid to surrender to the Russians because of the devastation they had left behind in the Soviet territory; the division had to leave quickly to reach the American Zone safely.

The roar of the tanks filled the night as they prepared to depart, and on the streets, the number of guards doubled.

I sneaked out into the dark and cautiously waited for the patrol to pass to the other end of the street. Then I climbed into the driver’s seat of the empty field truck to untie the rifle. The straps were dry and hard, and it took me longer to free the rifle and the ammunition than I anticipated. By then, the two patrolmen were returning from the far end of the street.

The beating of my heart seemed louder than the roar of the tanks as the guards almost touched the door when they passed by me. At the foot of the ridge, about 200 feet from the truck, they turned back. I held my breath once more, but I could not control my heartbeat; in the tight space between the seat and the pedals I almost choked from its pounding. My throat and mouth burned and my sweaty hands trembled with fright.

After a few moments, I peeked out to see the guards fading in the darkness. Quietly I unlocked the door and slid off the seat. At that moment, in the second floor window of the house where I lived, appeared the horrified face of my mother. I saw her silhouette there; her frightened form tight against the glass seemed to reflect a saintly image. She recognized me and saw what I did.

I had been hiding my activities from her for security reasons. Most of the time, however, she knew what was going on, and her strong convictions to fight for freedom silently reinforced our family’s ideals. It was really not necessary to shelter her; yet I felt a searing pang of guilt when I saw her terror. She was still my mother.

I shut the truck door silently and swiftly vanished toward the dark hill with the rifle and ammunition.

When I got to the cave I relaxed, prepared the weapon, and hoped for daybreak so I could see. I knew the locomotive would come; I just did not know when.

In the morning light, that image of my mother in the window faded slowly from my mind as I realized what I was facing. I swallowed many times to moisten my throat, which seemed to grow drier with each passing second. I started to hope the locomotive would not come, that perhaps they had changed their minds or even forgotten.

Then, suddenly it arrived. In a few seconds the steam brake stopped the locomotive. A soldier stepped down with a battery box in his hands and walked toward the cables.

He was going to blow up the bridge.

I had just one chance. I would not have another. After the first shot the solider would be able to take cover and detonate the charges.

The long rifle was ready. I got the soldier in my sights as he was kneeling over the box. I squeezed the trigger slowly and took my shot. When the engineer saw his partner fall down dead, he took off with the steam hissing and the wheels of the locomotive wildly spinning.

Shortly thereafter I heard several explosions from the city; I discovered later it was a clothing and shoe warehouse, the food supply warehouse, and the grain depository.

I remained still. In a few hours the whole territory became silent. The era of German control had ended.

Then the Soviets took over for the next forty‐five years.

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