By Rachel M. Anderson, Freelance Writer
(Detroit, MI) – There are countless World War II heroes whose accomplishments are noted in the history books. But those who received public recognition aren’t the only ones who made a difference during the War.
You probably haven’t heard the story of Czechoslovak teenager Charles Novacek, but his actions made a difference for the people of Eastern Europe. Along with his father, uncle and sister, he helped the Resistance fight first the Nazis then the Communists who moved into Czechoslovakia after World War II ended.
Novacek was responsible for many notable acts of heroism during the War. He risked his life to help hide Czech paratroopers who were on secret nighttime missions involving cargo drops of weapons and intelligence. He also stole a rifle and ammunition from a Nazi vehicle, then used the weapon to shoot a soldier who was intending to blow up an important railroad bridge.
His heroic acts in the name of his homeland continued after the War ended. The Nazis were no longer the enemy. The Communists were, and despite the torture they subjected him to after capturing him as an enemy combatant, Novacek continued to fight the good fight in the name of Czechoslovakia.
Now his accomplishments are highlighted for posterity in his award-winning memoir, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance (Ten 21 Press, Detroit, Oct. 2012, $18).
According to Gail Naughton, President and CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it is people like Charles who helped Czechoslovakia through one of the darkest periods in its history. “There were strong opinions on both sides whether the Czechoslovak army should oppose the Germans in 1938. President Edvard Beneš, who believed in the possibility of preserving peace, said, ‘I continue in the hope that there will be no war. I am convinced that it will always be possible to prevent it.’ When appeasement failed and the Nazi’s invaded in 1939, the underground resistance movement strengthened and the fighters played an important part in defeating the Nazis and saving the country.”
The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library’s permanent exhibition, Faces of Freedom: The Czech and Slovak Journey, tells the dramatic stories of 20th Century Czechs and Slovaks in both their homeland and in America. Those caught behind the Iron Curtain lived under stifling oppression, with some in fear for their lives, and persevered until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Treasured artifacts and oral histories of almost 300 Cold War émigrés provide the stories of those who fled the Nazis and Communism for freedom in the United States.
In addition to the exhibits, there are numerous books about Czech and Slovak history for sale in the museum store, including Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance The book not only offers insight into life in Czechoslovakia during the 1940s, it tells the compelling story of a man determined to find everlasting freedom.
Readers learn that after the War, with his life in danger, Novecek fled to Germany, then Venezuela and was finally able to immigrate with his wife and children to the United States in 1956. The family settled in Detroit, Mich.
Novacek’s wife, Valentina, died in March 1994, less than a year after doctors diagnosed her with a terminal brain tumor. After her death, Charles threw himself into his studies for a time, then began the search for a companion who would support him through the rest of his life. Friends introduced him to Sandra Scherba and before long they were inseparable.
“Before we were married, we spent hours and hours talking about everything that had happened in our lives, and when Charles opened up about what had happened to him during the War at first I was speechless. I couldn’t imagine anyone having the courage to do what he did,” said Sandra Novacek, who goes on to explain that she knew right away that Charles’ story needed to be told.
Off and on over the next several years, Charles wrote parts of what would ultimately become his memoir while working on class assignments for his M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Charles finally finished the book shortly before his death in 2007. His widow had the manuscript edited and did some research of her own to add a timeline and biographies about Charles’ sister and uncle, who were also key players in the resistance movement.
Since its release in Oct. 2012, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistancehas received 13 independent book awards, including being named winner of the Bronze Medal in the World History category of the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and a Gold Medal in the Autobiography/ Memoir category of the Midwest Book Awards. The book also received a very favorable review from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who said, “Border Crossings is the well-told and dramatic story of a young man whose comfortable life is abruptly transformed by the savagery of World War II. Forced to rely on primal instincts and his familiarity with the rugged highlands of Moravia, Charles Novacek casts his lot first with the anti-Hitler Underground and then with the resistance to the Nazis’ Communist successors. “My recollections pain me,” he writes, “still, they have made me who I am.” Novacek’s experience as a Hungarian- speaking Czecho-Slovak patriot demonstrates the folly of petty nationalism and the resilience of human decency and love.”
Dr. Christina Vella, a writer, historian of modern Europe and visiting professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, adds that Novacek’s memoir offers a good accounting of what life was like in Czechoslovakia during and after World War II. “It offers a good look at the impact the Resistance Movement had on people’s lives and daily activities; the sacrifices they made. It also makes those sacrifices and those activities interesting. The intensity of the book keeps you reading,” she said.
Books are available for purchase at select bookstores in Michigan and at Czech & Slovak cultural centers and museums across the country. They are also available for purchase online through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Log on to www.charlesnovacekbooks.com for direct links to purchase the book.
About Charles Novacek
Charles Novacek was born in Ožd’any, Czechoslovakia, on May 11, 1928. He graduated from the Industrial College of Engineering in Brno, Czechoslovakia, with a degree in mechanical engineering and attended the Masaryk University School of Law in Brno. After escaping his homeland in 1948, Novacek fled to Germany, then Venezuela and was finally able to immigrate with his family to the United States in 1956 where he taught himself English as his 7th language.
Novacek was a registered professional engineer and spent 33 years in the Detroit, Mich., metropolitan area as a civil engineer, project, design and quality assurance manager. In retirement Novacek studied Mandarin Chinese and earned a B.G.S and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and an M.A. in Painting from Eastern Michigan University. Novacek wrote and painted all of his life, but didn’t start writing his memoir,Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, until the year 2000. He died in July 2007.