To those he met in his adopted hometown of Detroit, Michigan, Charles Novacek was a fascinating Renaissance man. He spoke seven languages, traveled the globe and constantly pursued knowledge. After retiring from a successful career as a civil engineer, Charles returned to school, following his lifelong dream of becoming an artist. He earned a master’s degree in painting from Eastern Michigan University and a Bachelor of General Studies and Master of Arts in Liberal Arts Studies from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, eventually showing his paintings and sculpture in Detroit area galleries.
What most people never discovered, however, was that the charming, erudite artist spent his boyhood in the Czech Resistance, defending his homeland from the Nazis and the Communists. Charles’ father, Antonin, had been a prisoner of war in World War I and ensured his son developed wilderness survival skills at an early age. Charles’ childhood was spent exploring the wilds of Slovakia and the Tatra Mountains. He learned how to find food and water, how to fire a rifle and shoot an arrow, and how to create shelter. He learned the details of the landscape around his home, including the location of its many caves.
This free-roaming childhood came to an end in 1939, as war raged across the continent and the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. Charles and his sister were inducted into the Czech Resistance. At an age most children were learning how to diagram sentences, they were learning how to resist torture, handle phobias, and to control pain, hunger and thirst. Reflecting the desperation of the times, they were warned to trust no one.
Under cover of night Charles met Czech and British RAF soldiers parachuting behind enemy lines and showed them caves he had equipped for their shelter. In an incredible act of bravery, he once snuck into a Nazi truck and stole a rifle and ammunition in order to shoot a Nazi who was about to blow up a railroad bridge. The Nazis destroyed the town’s clothing warehouse, food supply and granary that day, but the vital railroad bridge remained.
He continued to fight the Communists, enduring imprisonment and a daring escape. After realizing his homeland had become too dangerous for him to stay, Charles escaped to a displaced person’s camp in Germany. There he met Valentina, a young Latvian doctor who would become his first wife. They immigrated to Venezuela and then, in 1956, to America, where they raised four children before Valentina’s death in 1994. In 1996, he met and married Sandra, with whom he shared world travels. Charles began work on his memoir and Sandra was there to help and encourage him. In 2007, the man who had faced a firing squad as a teenager died at the age of 79.
The Publisher – Sandra A. Novacek
Sandra A. Novacek was born and raised in the Detroit, Michigan area and found her true calling as a librarian as a young girl, when she developed a checkout system for the Nancy Drew mysteries she loaned to her friends.
After earning a BA in English and Theater from Michigan State University and a Masters in Library Science from Wayne State University, Sandra worked as a high school English and theater teacher, then became director of the U.S. Army Education Center in Pruem, Germany before assuming her first librarian position at the Library of Michigan.
In 1975, she began a distinguished career as director of the Cromaine Library in Hartland, Michigan. Sandra also served her profession on a national level through leadership positions with the American Library Association and as president of the Michigan Library Association.
In 1996, a library patron introduced Sandra to Charles Novacek, widower, artist and retired engineer who spoke seven languages and had a fascinating life story. The couple enjoyed a whirlwind courtship, marrying four months after meeting. Sandra left her library post and settled with Charles in a high-rise overlooking Detroit’s riverfront.
After Charles’ death, Sandra attended by chance a library program on writing memoir featuring noted Chinese author Da Chen. Arriving early she spoke to him about Charles’ life and manuscript and his determination to have it published before he died. Da Chen’s message was: “He gave you love, now you must give him immortality.” These words and the memory of Charles have kept her moving forward to publish Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance.
The article on the left appeared on the front page of the Detroit Free Press on February 14, 2014.