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Captiva man to be awarded European country’s highest civilian honor

By Staff | Mar 25, 2015

Karel Aster at age 20. PHOTO PROVIDED

A Captiva man who survived the horrors of captivity will be honored by a European nation in April for his citizen conduct after time as a prisoner of war, for his contributions to society and the promotion of goodwill.

Karel Aster will receive the Gratias Agit award from the Czech Republic April 23 at the Captiva Civic Center. The central European country’s ambassador to the US, Petr Gandalovic, is expected to present the award at a 5 p.m. ceremony. Mr. Aster is from a small village in the former Czechoslovakia but has lived in Illinois and Florida since 1945. He was a Czech national with the US War Department in the 1940s.

Mr. Aster’s immediate family will be in Captiva April 23. Two family members on his behalf received the award in the Czech Republic last June. At age 95, Karel Aster wasn’t up for the long trip.

Czech authorities, however, “rolled out the red carpet, made is feel like the heroes,” said Michael Murray, whose wife Jenny is Mr. Aster’s grand-daughter. The Murrays, islanders and others will help honor Karel Aster in Captiva.

Karel Aster was a successful shoe wholesaler retired full time to Captiva in the 1990s. As a youth he was sent by a Czechoslovakian shoe company to the US in the 1930s. The award he receives in April is bestowed to those “working for the benefit of the whole society, for the promotion of friendship among nations and for the promotion of the good name of the Czech Republic in the world,” paperwork released by the Czech Republic states. The award is similar to the US Medal of Freedom.

Karel Aster on April 23 will receive the Czech Republic’s highest civilian honor. CRAIG GARRETT

“It’s very nice,” Aster said of the award.

Karel Aster came to the world’s attention much like millions of others in war. At his release from a Japanese prisoner camp near Nagasaki in 1945, at 6 feet tall he weighed 90 pounds, had lost his teeth and the sight in his left eye, all due to malnutrition, beatings and slave labor. Harsh memories, lost comrades and nightmares haunted him for decades, as well.

But in another sense Karel Aster was different. He wasn’t a soldier, wasn’t persecuted for race or faith. He was simply a young man in the wrong place in the worst time in modern history. He was a Czechoslovakian in the Philippines helping to begin production on behalf of the Bata Shoe Co. The European firm had sent Aster to the US in 1939 after training in shoe manufacturing. His job was to assist in World’s Fair shoe exhibits. Things in the meantime were dissolving with the Nazi government rolling over its neighbors, bullying the world, conjuring new ways to horrify.

Bata in 1940 elected to set up production of leather and canvas shoes in Manila. Aster and other staff shipped over to the Philippines in 1941.

In a memoir of his ordeal compiled into “Recollections of My War Years,” Aster wrote: “None of us had any worries or concerns that the war (in Europe) would affect us there. We had full faith that the company management knew what they were doing.”

The Czech shoe company, of course, had no clue the Japanese would violate Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, much of the eastern world late 1941. In short order Aster and his shoe company comrades as civilians inducted into the US Department of War were in the custody of Japanese troops, in the small Bataan Peninsula province. He was paraded in the so-called Death March, or what the Japanese termed the Victory March.

“The first Japanese soldier whom I encountered the next day,” Aster wrote of the May 1942 introduction to an entirely new and cruel life, “set a bayonet against my chest and yelled ‘PESO. PESO!” probably the only non-Japanese words he knew,” noting the soldiers were pilfering the dead and robbing the living. And that was a high point.

From there, Aster’s life devolved into an even darker hole. Over the next three years, he and thousands of others were starved, beaten, left to forage as slave laborers building rail lines, runways or in coal mines, stooping to haul 200-pound beams in 4-foot tunnels. Thousands in custody died from disease, malnutrition, shot for escaping, even murder. Some gave up and succumbed, he wrote in his memoir. Others endured but died aboard transport ships heading to Japan at the war’s end. The ships were torpedoed or bombed by American troops.

One of the most striking of Aster’s memories is of the war’s final days. Having survived a 1944 ordeal in the belly of Japanese transport ship with some 700 others, “where we no longer behaved as human beings,” he and his comrades were assembled in the camp just outside Nagasaki. The Japanese commander stepped up to his platform and spoke through a translator to the ragged and starving men. His tone was subdued.

“He said that the fighting had stopped, the war was over and that we were all friends again,” Aster wrote. “We returned in silence and relatively good order to our quarters, but we were no longer saluting and bowing to the guards. The war was finally over and ended.”

Aster’s memoirs of his captivity were written first in a letter to his parents in October 1945. He wouldn’t see his Czech family until December 1959. The Russians controlled the country until 1989. Over the balance of his life, Aster founded and was successful with Karel Aster Shoes, a wholesaler in Chicago. He married in 1961. He retired to Captiva. His sprawling and elevated home faces Pine Island Sound, evidence of a passion for gardening, for keeping things tidy. The grounds are very still and gentle.

Karel Aster at age 95 looks his age. There’s a heavy bandage on his forearm, for instance, because his papery skin tears easily, he said. But he’s otherwise active, moves well. He shot a hole in one last summer using a hybrid 7 iron at Shell Point. The certificate is in a drawer. He also sips plum brandy, the Czech national drink, and puffs half a cigar per day. He drives to Bailey’s, occasionally over the causeway in his Mercury sedan. But only during the day. His wife Jana, herself the widow of a freed Japanese captive, died in 2003. He mostly keeps to himself at night, he said. There is artwork in his office of his home village near Prague, a husky work desk, family portraits, lots of books and pretty rugs throughout the home. He likes golf on television. It seems lonely, though.

Yet there’s amusement in eyes that have endured much more than the rest of us. He’s animated about golf (“golfink” with his Czech brogue) and a brand of Scotch whisky that arrived in his Chicago office after the war. It came from an English soldier and fellow detainee whose family owned the distillery. It was promised on a bet who could pick the date the war would end. The other guy would’ve gotten new shoes.

That luster in his eyes vanishes in voicing in Japanese his prisoner count number. It’s feels odd to hear a man so damaged by his captors recite catch phrases and commands in their language. But Karel Aster long ago forgave them.

“There are no more nightmares,” he said. “No more anything.”

The Czech Republic does not honor its citizens or awardees posthumously. The ceremony in Captiva is expected to bear the dignity of a US Medal of Freedom. It also ends a sad chapter in history.

In the final line of his memoirs, Aster wrote: “And now I am the last one who still remains alive to tell the story.”

It is dated Captiva Island, Florida, December 25, 2005.

The Captiva Civic Center is at 11550 Chapin Lane.