Honoring Czech Resistance Leader – Josef Robotka

josefplaquecolorToday I honor my late husband Charles Novacek’s uncle Josef Robotka and am posting an unedited paper Charles wrote about him. The paper was eventually incorporated in Charles’ memoir, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Ten21 Press, 2012.

Sixty-four years ago on November 12, 1952, at 5:40 a.m., Josef Robotká was executed at Pankrac Prison in Prague, Czecho-Slovakia. He was 46 years old. Josef was a leader in the Czech Resistance during World War II and the Cold War. He was arrested in 1949, stripped of his civil rights, made to forfeit all of his property and imprisoned for nearly three years before his execution. Josef was hanged by the Communist Party for the alleged crimes of espionage and treason through his leadership in Rada Tri and other organizations fighting for freedom from oppression. I regret that I could never meet Josef, but am thankful to have the good fortune to meet his widow Helena. She was also a brave resistance fighter and loving mentor for Charles. The above plaque is posted in Josef’s hometown of Velka Bites, Czech Republic and honors him for his service to his country.


by Charles Novacek

I received a message to meet Uncle at the open vegetable market – zelný trh.  He wanted to see me.  His instructions to me were to meet him at the pharmacy at one o’clock.  A few bcjosefcroppeddays before our government had sent him to Russia as the military attaché representing the new Czechoslovakia.  I wondered what had happened.  I had just finished my first year of law school, including all associated exams, and felt like celebrating, but this meeting clouded with secrecy made me apprehensive.  For some time I knew Uncle was organizing new resistance against the Communists.  That was the reason he had sent me to Zanzibar.  It had taken me almost three weeks to make that trip.  I hadn’t realized he would be involved in the resistance so soon.

I knew that one o’clock was precisely the moment he would be passing by the pharmacy at the corner.  From a distance at exactly one I watched him to see a sign, known just by us, telling me I should approach him.  He kept on walking between two buildings around the corner into an alley, crossing his thumb with his forefinger, a sign for me to meet him at the crosswalk out of sight of the market.  This meant he was being watched from the market place!  I crossed around the old buildings, and when I was out of view of the open plaza I ran to the end of the walk where he had entered through a large wooden gate into a decrepit, dirt covered drive.  By then I was at his side and went with him into a garden surrounded by an old stonewall.  There we sat.  After a short pause he told me what had just happened and what needed to be done.

Uncle Joe always treated me as an adult, even when I was 12.  Since the last time I talked to him his face had aged and I read fear in it.  At that moment I felt like I had in Slovakia 10 years before when the Germans took over our country.  Uncle was very serious, and I could detect uncommon emotion in his eyes – he was on the verge of tears.  He looked like my father back in 1938 when he told me that he was wrong about my never having to go fight in a war again.

Uncle Joe started to say that he had been sent to Moscow as a military envoy but had never arrived there.  He was arrested in Lvow and sent back to Czechoslovakia in chains where he found himself under a new officer directed by an NKVD agent from the Soviet Union.  There he had been demoted, stripped of all his rights as an officer of the General Staff, and released into civilian status.  He knew they were following him expecting he would lead them to others in the resistance.  He had to see me, he said, to arrange for my way out.  I must go to Prague and join Professor Kominek – he already was waiting for me.  I would have to arrange with friends, family, and acquaintances to say that I was in Slovakia or elsewhere in the country if they are questioned.  If the secret service, like the two that were trailing him then would see me talking to him, I would be followed and eventually arrested.  Uncle said this would probably be the last time we would see each other.  He wanted me to work for Kominek as I had worked for him.  The necessary paperwork at the Masaryk University in Brno was arranged to provide me with a student status at the Charles University in Prague with a student job at the Ministry of Interior.  I should stay with Kominek as long as I could.  Should I lose my cover, I must leave this country, change my name, change my nationality, and establish a new life somewhere else, forgetting all about the old world!

All this sounded ominous, and I was petrified.  He then hugged me, (first time he ever did that), said how much he respected and loved me, and warned me to be on the lookout for a short – about 5’ 5” tall – Far eastern cross-eyed men with short, rounded noses, well-built, strong, with remarkable fists.  There were many men like this here already, he said.  They were agents of NKVD, (KGB) and I had better be afraid of them, because they were the best.  He would, he said, go back to the Green Market so the two men who were trailing him could pick up his track again.  I could watch from the other side of the square so I could learn to identify them.

This was the last time I saw Uncle.  It was very emotional.  I just asked why the Soviets did this to him?  After all we had fought the Germans like they had, why?  He explained that the Communists wanted him to declare publicly that our underground resistance was Communist motivated and that we all were Communists.  He wouldn’t agree to make such a public statement.  All who were in R-5 (the name of the resistance group) during the war would suffer the same fate; therefore, he wanted me to leave as soon as possible.  I left the garden through the back to reenter the square from the other end so I could see the men who trailed Uncle.  As he had said, I couldn’t miss them.  They stood out in the crowd.

I liquidated my belongings and packed a small bag.  Then I went to the post office with many post cards addressed to my sister, my friend Jiři, the clarinetist and another friend in the Symphony Orchestra of Brno where I had played the violin.  I dated these cards progressively with my handwriting and mailed them to Etelka asking her to put the cards in the mailbox with corresponding dates so they would arrive in Brno as if sent by me from Slovakia.  This would make it appear as if I was in Slovakia and would give me time to avoid the state police while in Bohemia.  From the post office I went to our contact at Masaryk University who already had prepared papers with my new cover name.  I was to be Karel Zpívák, of Husovice, Brno, a student of Masaryk University, finishing my first year of history, with which I would enter Charles University, History department, and live in Mala Strana, Prague.

In those days there wasn’t fingerprinting for identification purposes, and I was safe for the time being as I entered my one room apartment on the second floor in Malá Strana.  Professor Kominek had arranged the rent with an elderly widow.  The room was simply furnished with enough space for my books, notes and extensive maps of Prague, which I studied very carefully.  I had two exits from here in case of an emergency.  One was the window, which faced the maze of passages between old buildings, intricate rooftops and side streets.  The other exit from a small corridor led to a narrow medieval street overcrowded by street vendors and parked vehicles.  It took me several days to get acquainted with this labyrinth.  From my apartment, the network of the political organizations and offices were just 20 minutes away.

Professor Kominek assigned me to the Ministry of Interior to collect data about the movement of agents, plans for arresting citizens, and learning how the Communist party would overpower the government.  I had my hands full, because all this required the careful approach of a young student of history who was pretending to learn how to be useful to the Socialist regime.  I had a good chance to succeed by approaching my job in this way.  There were employees who liked to speak about their work and often good information came my way.  I was a good listener and soon, mainly the young generation of various departments in the Ministry, appointed to execute tasks for the senior staff, became my best informers, not even knowing it.  Eager to advance on the social ladder many of them talked about their duties with their friends and often secret information leaked out.  They liked to show off their assignments and I was happy to admire them for being in such an important position.

Prague, during my first days carried me into medieval architectural treasures as if carefully assembled just for me and as I always imagined them.  That would have been enough to sustain me with its magic and beauty, but it wasn’t why I was here.  I was caught by insensitive times numb to the beauty and magic that Charles IV planted in the city many centuries ago to illuminate nations with the splendor of the arts and sciences.


World War II Silk Escape Maps – Ingenious and Colorful

silkmap2crWhile doing research for BORDER CROSSINGS: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, I read that during World War II, the United States and Great Britain manufactured silk and cloth maps. The maps were issued to RAF paratroopers, Special Forces, and members of the Nazi resistance in case they were shot down or trapped behind enemy lines and needed to escape.

World War II British escape maps were the creation of Christopher Clayton Hutton, an M19 British Army officer who was the genius behind many James Bond style inventions which are still in use today. MI9 was established in December 1939. Among its functions were to facilitate escapes and the return of escapees and evaders to England.

Hutton persuaded Bartholomew’s a famous map making company to waive their copyright on maps for the war effort. He had the maps printed onto pure silk (on both sides) because it was an ideal material for an escape map. Silk was quiet and didn’t rustle. It was lightweight and thin. Pectin was added to the dyes so they wouldn’t run when wet. The maps could be used to filter water or make a sling and they could be folded up very small and easily concealed inside a cigarette pack or heel of a shoe. They could be sewn inside the lining of a uniform or other clothing.

Escape maps were also made of rayon, nylon, and a tissue made with mulberry leaves — all very durable

Many of the escape maps were smuggled into German POW camps by way of Monopoly game boards, chess sets, and packs of cards. The Germans did not allow relief groups to send games to the captured Allies, so Waddington, the makers of monopoly in Britain, printed the maps on silk and inserted them in an indention made in the game board. The indention was then covered by the paper of the playing surface.

The maps were also useful after the war ended as there was a shortage of fabric and rationing of it continued. People turned to using surplus escape maps to make clothing – blouses, dresses, shirts, skirts, etc.

Several hundred thousand silk maps were produced during World War II. It is  estimated that of the nearly 35,000 Allied troops who escaped from behind enemy lines, more than half used a silk map. Many of these maps have survived and are now quite collectible.

Among my most prized possessions are two colorful silk escape maps, my favorite being Map 43 E-F which includes the countries of Germany (includes Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), Italy, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Croatia, and Slovakia.

Hoffer Celebrated, Novacek Remembered

erichoffercigar400Today is the birthday of Eric Hoffer (1898 – 1983), working-class philosopher, migratory worker, and longshoreman. He became a social writer, grounded in the practical experience of the common worker, and was the author of ten books. Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983. His first book, The True Believer (1951), was widely recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen.

In 2013 The Eric Hoffer Book Award Committee announced Charles Novacek’s Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance was winner of the 2013 Eric Hoffer Award of Honorable Mention in the category of Memoir. Border Crossings was also named a Finalist for three other 2013 Eric Hoffer Awards:The Montaigne Medal for most thought-provoking book, The da Vinci Eye for best cover art, and The Eric Hoffer Grand Prize Award.

The Eric Hoffer Book Award was established internationally in 2001 to honor Hoffer’s memory. “The Award honors freethinking writers and independent books of exceptional merit. Many other top literary prizes will not even consider independent books, but “the Hoffer award continues to be a platform for and the champion of the independent voice.”

The judging committee commented: Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Charles Novacek, 1021 Press – In this well-articulated memoir, Charles Novacek pays tribute to the heroes of his past. “My country comes first,” is the lesson young Charles learns from his father. Courageous and inquisitive, our hero comes to age through the horrors of World War II, spends his tumultuous youth fighting Communism, and finds peace in a land away from home. Like many before him, coming to America becomes an act of self- preservation, not an abandonment of the homeland. Part memoir and part history lesson, this book captures a time long gone, with moments of normalcy and love in the midst of suffering and struggle. The passage of years fails to erase the author’s memory of remarkable events, which he recounts in captivating detail. This book makes an important contribution to the literature of World War II and communism in Eastern Europe. Kudos to Sandra Novacek, the author’s “last love,” for entrusting this remarkable personal account to the printer.”

Picnic in Czechoslovakia

novacekfamfriendspicnicrevcrSelf-confined to my air-conditioned condo in the city this morning, I look at old photographs and write, determined to escape the heat.

One photograph set in the Tatra Mountains of Czechoslovakia in 1931, soothes me. It captures a happy moment of my late husband Charles Novacek and his family picnicking in a scenic place, surrounded by their friends and nature.

It looks like everyone has enjoyed a delicious meal and are now relaxed, focusing on each other and the beautiful day – probably wishing it would never end.

I would love to be there – the location, the company, the food. I wonder what they had to eat and drink.

Perhaps, rezeň, a breaded pork steak/schnitzel. Or baked smoked pork (pečené údené bravčové mäso) with horseradish sauce. Or stuffed cabbage (holubki) and homemade sausage (kolbasi), potato dumplings with sauerkraut (Halušky), cucumber and vinegar salad (Uhorkovy Salat), and rye bread with caraway.

Beer (pivo). Wine (vino). Mineral water (minerálka), or sheep milk (urda). For dessert maybe kolache or a cherry cerešňová or blueberry (čučoriedka) bubble cake (bublanina).

The image inspires sweet thoughts of joyful conviviality.

After death, something new. . .


“Why should I be frightened of dying? I did not know what death truly was; no one did. Who had made dying a bad word? Yes, it was universally considered awful—unwanted, painful, feared—because when it happened it stopped us from moving and being, and we interpreted that as if something had ended. But what if it were actually a beautiful experience? What if, with death, something actually began instead?”

–Charles Novacek (1928-2007), Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance

Photo: Bahia de Plata, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela

“For the land of the free and the home of the brave. . .”

johns_flag_moma“Before I reached the border that day, I made it clear to myself that this would be for keeps. For me, it meant changing loyalty from Czechoslovakia to the United States, having America as my new Motherland. If she needed me, I would die to defend her. I felt that way when I entered in 1956 and today, as escalating anxiety and conflict threaten her freedom, I still feel ready to defend her.

It was not easy to make a covenant of that magnitude, but I knew then that I would never reclaim the country of my birth. The tragic past I would set behind me forever, and would write about it only to benefit the young; perhaps they could learn from it and avoid another war.”

–Charles Novacek (1928-2007) from Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Ten21 Press, 2012.

Jasper Johns (1930-    ) “Flag,” encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood,1954-55, Modern Museum of Art

The colors of the American flag are symbolic: red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and Innocence and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice. 

Ten21 Press and Border Crossings at Bohemian Book Fair

bohemianbookfair2Interested in hot books by cool publishers? Check out the BOHEMIAN BOOK FAIR on Friday, June 3 at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, June 4, from 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. at Czech Center New York, in the Bohemian National Hall, 321 E 73rd Street, (Between 1st and 2nd Aves). Readings by seven authors will start the evening on June 3 with book sales and signing following.

Admission is free and Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance published by Ten 21 Press will be there. I will be one of the readers, reading an excerpt from Border Crossings!

The event is presented by The Prague Summer Program for Writers and co-sponsored by New York-based independent publisher Three Rooms Press and Czech Center New York, under the auspices of the Consul General of the Czech Republic Martin Dvořák. It is part of a 2-day symposium of bohemian literature, which includes panel discussions, lectures, readings and master classes with world-renowned writers.

Participating publishers in the Bohemian Book Fair 2016 include ACC Distribution, Armchair Shotgun, Belladonna Series, Bottle of Smoke Press, Brooklyn Arts Press, Golden Alley Press, Great Weather for Media, McPherson & Co., Polity Books, Public Affairs Books, Skyhorse Publishing, Ten 21 Press, Three Rooms Press, and Ugly Duckling Presse. Publishers will have recent titles in poetry, fiction, dada, memoir, biography, essays, flash fiction, and more.

Throughout the course of the book fair, there will be panel discussions, readings, and master classes, by recognized authors including Guggenhiem and Macarthur fellow Patricia Hampl, award-winning poet Gerald Stern, Guggenheim fellow Alison Hawthorne Deming, Paterson Poetry Prize-winning poet Stanley Plumly, novelist Robert Eversz; award-winning poet and nonfiction author Beth Ann Fennelly; award-winning memoirist Randy Fertel; internationally-renowned poet Richard Jackson; award-winning poet Anne Marie Macari; poet, journalist, and University of Iowa International Writing Program director Christopher Merrill; and poet, essayist and Prague Summer Program founder Richard Katrovas.

For further information on the Master Classes, including reservations, please visit our ticket page at http://psp-in-nyc.eventbee.com

All events will be held at Czech Center New York, 321 E. 73rd Street, New York, NY.

Book Fair Featured Participating Publishers:

ACC Distribution

Armchair Shotgun

Belladonna Series The Belladonna* mission is to promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language.

Bottle of Smoke Press Bottle of Smoke Press was started in 2002 to publish new  and well-established avant-garde poets in short-run editions. In 2004 we started printing some titles letterpress and now offer our books in paperback, hardcover as well as deluxe editions. We use the finest materials and strive to make the books appearance match the excellent writing that we are honored to publish. We are located a little over an hour north of NYC in the hamlet of Wallkill, NY.

Brooklyn Arts Press Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP) is an independent house devoted to publishing new works by emerging artists. We believe we serve our community best by publishing great works of varying aesthetics side by side, subverting the notion that writers & artists exist in vacuums, apart from the culture in which they reside & outside the realm & understanding of other camps & aesthetics. We believe experimentation & innovation, arriving by way of given forms or new ones, make our culture greater through diversity of perspective, opinion, expression, & spirit.

Golden Alley Press Golden Alley Press is a small, independent publisher located in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Our tagline, “Books you’ll want to read, written by people you’ll want to meet,” describes our mission to bring interesting new voices to light, particularly in the areas of memoir and theology.

Great Weather For Media great weather for MEDIA focuses on the unpredictable, the fearless, the bright, the dark, and the innovative. We are based in New York City and showcase both national and international writers. As well as publishing the highest quality poetry and prose, we organize numerous events locally and across the country.

McPherson & Co McPherson & Company is an independent, literary and arts press founded in 1974. We specialize in literary fiction (American as well as translations from Italian, Spanish, and French), contemporary culture (art theory, performance, film, philosophy), and occasional cross-genre projects. The press is based in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Polity Books   Polity is a leading international publisher in the social sciences and humanities and we publish some of the world’s best authors in these fields. Our aim is to combine the publication of original, cutting-edge work of the highest quality with a systematic programme of textbooks and coursebooks for students and scholars in further and higher education.

Public Affairs Books

Skyhorse Publishing Skyhorse Publishing is the publisher for Ivan Backer’s memoir My Train to Freedom: A Jewish Boy’s Journey from Nazi Europe to a Life of Activism.  As Backer recounts in his memoir, in May of 1939, as a ten-year-old Jewish boy, he fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia for the United Kingdom aboard one of the Kindertransport trains organized by Nicholas Winton.  Detailed in this true story is Backer’s dangerous escape, his boyhood in England, his perilous 1944 voyage to America.  Now he is an eighty-six-year-old who has been and remains a life-long activist for peace and justice.

Ten 21 Press Ten21 Press was founded by Sandra Novacek in 2011 to publish “important, creative works and authentic stories of high quality”. Ten21 Press’s debut book is Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance. The memoir was published to fulfill Sandra’s promise to her late husband Charles Novacek who dreamed of publishing his firsthand account of survival as a youth amid the Nazi and Communist occupations of Czechoslovakia during WW II and the Cold War.

Three Rooms Press Three Rooms Press is a fierce New York-based independent publisher inspired by dada, punk and passion. Founded in 1993, it serves as a leading independent publisher of cut-the-edge creative, including fiction, memoir, poetry translations, drama and art.

Ugly Duckling Presse Ugly Duckling Presse is a nonprofit publisher for poetry, translation, experimental nonfiction, performance texts, and books by artists. UDP was transformed from a 1990s zine into a Brooklyn-based small press by a volunteer editorial collective that has published more than 200 titles to date. UDP favors emerging, international, and “forgotten” writers, and its books, chapbooks, artist’s books, broadsides, and periodicals often contain handmade elements, calling attention to the labor and history of bookmaking. UDP is committed to keeping its publications in circulation with our online archive of out-of-print chapbooks and our digital proofs program. http://www.uglyducklingpresse.org

Miss Czech–Slovak US Endorses Memoir on Czech Resistance

I am proud to announce the recent endorsement of Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance by Meagan Kurmel, Miss Czech–Slovak US 2015-2016.

On Charles Novacek’s memoir, Ms. Kurmel’s endorsement states:

“From beginning to end, I was enthralled with Charles Novacek’s journey. In a country torn by war, his youth vanished quickly as he found himself performing tasks grown men could not do.  Border Crossings is a book about heroism and illustrates the tenacity and strength of the Czech and Slovak character. This is a must read, especially for those yearning  to know more about the brave individuals who helped shape World War II and Cold War history.”

Meagan is a native Nebraskan and currently resides in Omaha, the state’s largest city. Like Charles her ancestors were of both Czech and Slovak heritage and she studied to be an engineer. Meagan graduated from the University of Nebraska in 2014, with a Bachelor’s degree in Architectural Engineering and in 2015 received a Master’s in Architectural Engineering with an emphasis in Mechanical Design. She is also a dance teacher, an avid outdoorswoman and enjoys hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking.

During the Miss Czech-Slovak US competition, Meagan performed a ballet polka for her talent. She also wore her grandmother’s kroj (Czech/Slovak folk costume) dating back to the early 20th century from the Piestany region of Slovakia. Meagan’s great-grandfather emigrated from this region in the early 1900s. The Piestany region is known for highly skilled silversmiths. Their craftsmanship is reflected in the silver embellishments seen throughout the kroj.

When competing for Miss Czech-Slovak US, Meagan was asked why she wanted to be crowned, what it means to her and her family, and what goals she would like to accomplish during this year.

She said she wanted to be able to promote and preserve her heritage on the national level and feels deeply honored to be chosen as Miss Czech-Slovak US 2015 – 2016.

“I am very proud to be of Czech-Slovak descent,” Meagan stated. “My family is comprised of individuals who work hard, choose to always do the right thing, and improve their surroundings to create a better place for future generations. I can connect that my love and respect of nature and hard work come from my ancestors and I am honored to be able to carry that on. In this experience, I look forward to meeting all of the interesting individuals and groups. I hope to hear their stories and carry on our traditions.”

9780985415105-JacketGray_novacek.inddI know Charles would be very pleased that Miss Czech-Slovak US not only read his book, but that she has endorsed it; that they share the occupation of engineer,  the love and respect of nature, hard work and the desire to make the world a better place for future generations!

Novacek, Charles. Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance. Ten21 Press, 2012. Available in hardcover, paper, and digital formats.




Beloved Puppets: From Innocence to Resistance

“And when the Nazis occupied Prague during World War II, the puppet theatre helped to keep the spirit of resistance alive.”

Yesterday I volunteered as an usher for a film showing in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) Danto Lecture Hall. I took tickets, passed out programs and when the film was showing I sat at a table in the in the hallway answering questions and assisting with late arrivals.

rodpuppetcrI was disappointed I couldn’t see the film, but happy that my table was opposite the rotating exhibit of the DIA Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection – over 800 puppets gifted from the family of the puppeteer and puppet collector Paul McPharlin. McPharlin collected puppets from all over the world and some from nearly 250 years ago. Dozens of children walked by my table and gazed at the marionettes. To hold their attention I tapped the digital touch screen show of dancing puppets from shadow to rod.

Because the DIA’s puppets are made from light sensitive materials, they can only be displayed six months at a time. The current DIA exhibit is of rod puppets used to tell the Nativity story and the play “Death of Tintagiles.” Six months ago I was delighted to see a different special exhibit called “VIPs (Very Important Puppets) from the Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection.”

Creative Commons, Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith

Creative Commons, Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith

The star of the exhibit was the original Howdy Doody marionette. When I was growing up there were few television celebrities more beloved by children than Howdy Doody. He was a red-haired, carefree and innocent, freckle-faced, “all American” boy marionette with a perpetual smile, and 48 freckles, one for each state of the union as on the American flag at the time. On January 3, 1959 Alaska was admitted and there were 49. Hawaii made it 50 when it was granted statehood seven months later.

I was a devoted fan and like many others considered Howdy and Buffalo Bob Smith, his sidekick, voice, and real person, my friends. I’ve never forgotten Howdy so I was thrilled when the Detroit Institute of Arts acquired and displayed the original Howdy Doody marionette dressed in his original red cowboy boots, buckskin gloves and wide smile.

Shortly, after my reunion with Howdy late last fall in Detroit, I visited the Czech Republic. There, I was reminded of the 300+ year old Czechoslovak tradition of puppetry. The people in Prague last November were definitely passionate about their puppets with puppet shows and puppet shops on nearly every block and a puppet museum, too. Somewhere I read that puppets may outnumber people in Prague!

Creative Commons, Spejbl and Hurvinek

Creative Commons, Spejbl and Hurvinek

They specialize in beautifully hand carved wooden puppets of many characters – devils, witches, princesses, kings, queens and even American icons like Superman, Michael Jackson, and Elvis.  But, perhaps, their most beloved marionette puppet characters of the past are a comical father named Spejbl created in 1919 and his rascal son Hurvinek created in 1926 by puppeteer Josef Skupa.

While working on promoting my late husband’s book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, I discovered not all puppeteers and their puppets have lived carefree, innocent lives. When the Czech language was banned by the Austrian Hungarian empire in the nineteenth century puppeteers continued to perform in Czech as an act of defiance. And Czech puppeteers like Skupa have a tradition of radical puppetry.

When the Nazis occupied Prague during World War II, the puppet theatre helped to keep the spirit of resistance alive. The Czechs organized illegal underground performances in homes and basements with anti-fascist themes. Radical puppet shows were also performed in public. The Nazis were slow to recognize the work of the puppet theater as a center of national resistance because it was mere entertainment for children and in a foreign language. Just how subversive could a block of wood on a piece of string get?

But puppeteers like Josef Skupa and his leading character Spejbl, did wartime tours of adult puppet plays with subtle symbolic points unnoticeable to the Nazi censors. One of the best real-life stories of puppets during World War II is related to Spejbl and Hurvínek. Skupa AND the puppets were arrested* in 1944 for anti-fascist resistance activities and jailed by the Nazis after the Gestapo realized Spejbl and Hurvínek shows were underhandedly mocking Adolf Hitler and the Germans! Eventually the Nazi’s curbed all Czech puppetry and over 100 puppeteers died under torture in the concentration camps.

Last Saturday as I sat at the table across from the puppet exhibit at the DIA, a man looking at the puppets, turned to me saying, “My wife and I just returned from Prague on a tour. We visited the National Marionette Theatre and saw an entertaining puppet show.”

He hadn’t had heard the story of Joseph Skupa and his subversive puppets during the Nazi occupation of World War II. He was amazed to learn how Czech puppeteers fought for freedom in the resistance and sacrificed their lives sharing messages and airing their views through a seemingly harmless art form thought by the Nazis to only be for children.


* Josef Skupa escaped from a Dresden prison during an allied bombing in February of 1945. After his escape and after the war Skupa opened the Spejbl & Hurvínek Theater in 1945 in Prague 6 from where it has remained until today.

An Inspiring Graphic Designer for Husband’s Memoir Book Cover

Hooray! In honor of International Women’s Day, the Casual Optimist has named Kimberly Glyder, one of fifty-two inspiring women graphic designers.


Kimberly is the cover designer for my late husband Charles Novacek’s award-winning memoir, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Ten21 Press, 2012.


She is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and currently principal at Kimberly Glyder Design, her design firm based in the Philadelphia area.

Kimberly and her book covers “inspired” me and that’s why I selected her to design Charles’ independently published book.

Next to having skilled editing of the manuscript, I knew that choosing the book cover designer was possibly the most important decision I would make as an independent publisher. The cover would be the visual interpretation of Charles’ thousands of carefully chosen words.

Potential readers, reviewers, and booksellers glance at a book for just a few seconds before making their selection. I wanted to make sure they selected Border Crossings!

I didn’t have unlimited funds to spend, but I felt sure a professional graphic designer was worth saving for. I started my search with a list of specifications.  It was very important to me that the person be a reader and lover of books. Designing covers just couldn’t be a “job.”

Other specs on the list included:

  • Proven track record as book designer
  • Sensibility for marketing
  • Eye catching covers
  • Covers make a statement
  • Effective use of typography
  • Effective use of color
  • Professionally designed website
  • Willing/able to incorporate vintage Novacek family photo(s)
  • Willing/able to design cover for hardcover, paperback, and digital books
  • Willing to freelance for independent publisher
  • Met my needed turn-around time

I started my search by locating designers of book covers I liked in Border Crossings’ genre and subject matter.

Then, I did an online search for book designers from my local area and long distance. I consulted design related websites, too.  Though I liked the idea of working with someone in my community I felt working with a designer long distance would work through emails and phone calls.

From my research I created a list of potential designers and contacted them.

Ultimately, Kimberly was my choice. Kimberly met my specifications and I read interviews of her online where I learned she met the very important requirement of loving books and reading. She said:

“My mom is an artist and my dad has always been an avid reader, so from an early age I loved both art and books.”

“I was always a voracious reader, so being able to combine books and design is an ideal fit.”

“I loved making books as a kid.”

The Border Crossings cover has been recognized for excellence as a Finalist, Best Cover in the 2012 Midwest Independent Publishing Association Awards and by The Book Designer for an eBook Cover Design Award in November, 2012. The Book Designer commented, “This cover is a terrific example of how to put together historical images to make a cohesive whole. In the hands of a talented designer, all the elements have been carefully employed to tell a story without taking away from the impact of the design. A real winner!”

I love the cover, too. . . especially the way Charles’ stares mysteriously at the reader over the title of the book!