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Captiva ceremony recognizes islander’s sacrifice

By Staff | Apr 30, 2015

The ceremony in Captiva included Michael Murray (left), Steve Carlson, Karel Aster and Czech Republic ambassador Petr Gandalovic. CRAIG GARRETT

Karel Aster’s long life came full circle April 23 in Captiva.

A native Czechoslovakian, Mr. Aster was captured and held in a Japanese war camp. He suffered cruelty, watched hundreds die, including close friends. He was released in 1945 weighing 90 pounds. It took 10 years to recover emotionally, friends and family recounted at a ceremony in his honor at the Captiva Civic Center. The Czech Republic ambassador to the US recognized Mr. Aster for his sacrifices with that nation’s highest civilian honor, the Gratias Agit award. He was also given awards from the Philippines, a personal citation from the ambassador.

Mr. Aster’s story, recounted in a memoir he wrote following his release from a WWII prisoner camp, “makes you think, would we be able to do such things?” said Petr Gandalovic, the Czech Republic ambassador presenting the awards.

As a native Czechoslovakian, Karel Aster was sent to the US in the 1930s to assist in World’s Fair shoe exhibits. He and other Czechoslovakians with the Bata Shoe. Co. ended up in the Philippines in the early 1940s as the Japanese were steamrolling that part of the world, in fact bombing US Navy ports in that nation at the same time Pearl Harbor was being destroyed.

Captured by the Japanese in the Philippines as a civilian volunteer with the US Department of War, Karel Aster endured some three years of harsh treatment, starved, beaten and used as a laborer. He emerged in 1945 thin and haggard, friends gone, nightmares to endure. In his memoirs, he recounted a Japanese captor telling prisoners that the war had ended, and that everyone should return to life as friends. The prisoners, Aster wrote, shook their heads and returned to their barracks. Guards would vanish from the camp, he wrote.

Mr. Aster returned to civilian life in California, even dated the secretary of that state’s governor. He later started a shoe wholesale firm in Chicago, retired to Captiva in the 1990s. He had been married to the widow of surviving POW. He will turn 95 this month.

Family and friends joined the Czech Republic in honoring Mr. Aster at the April 23 event. The names of fellow Czechs captured by the Japanese were read at the ceremony.

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