‘A powerful memoir and analysis of the twin tragedies of recent Czech history’ – Under a Cruel Star – A Life in Prague 1941-1968 by Heda Margolius Kovály

Near the beginning of her memoir Under a Cruel Star, Heda Margolius Kovály writes:

“People often ask me: How did you manage? To survive the camps! To escape! Everyone assumes it is easy to die but that the struggle to live requires a superhuman effort. Mostly it is the other way around. There is, perhaps, nothing harder than waiting passively for death. Staying alive is simple and natural and does not require any particular resolve.”

It would, however, have been understandable if she had waited passively for death to deliver her from the twin horrors of the Nazis and Communism.

As Jews, Heda and her family were deported from Prague to the Lodz ghetto in 1941. They were then sent to Auschwitz where Heda was separated from her parents who went to the gas chamber.

Towards the end of the war Heda managed to escape from a death march to Bergen-Belsen and made her way back to still-occupied Prague. Friends were too scared of the reprisals they would face if they helped her and she wandered around the city for days trying to avoid capture.

After the war Heda was reunited with fellow concentration camp survivor Rudolf whom she married. He became deputy minister for foreign trade and was idealistic about communism whereas Heda had doubts.

After a brief period of optimism the reality of living under another totalitarian regime became apparent. Rudolf was arrested and was tried in the notorious Slánský show trial of communist party officials in 1952. Most of the 14 defendants were Jewish. Rudolf was one of the 11 hanged.

As the wife of a convicted spy Heda lost her job and home and was even kicked out of a hospital bed. She found it hard to find work and to feed her young son. She was once again shunned by friends who were too scared to associate with her. Heda even had to fight to get her husband’s death certificate and learned that his ashes had been used to stop the wheels of an official’s car from slipping on an icy road.

As an explanation of how Czechoslovakia slipped into communism and as a chronicle of life under a totalitarian regime Under a Cruel Star is superb. Margolius Kovály sets out very clearly why communism was seen as the way forward and is almost forensic in outlining why, due to the kind of people it championed and promoted, it went so cruelly wrong. Margolius Kovály did find work as a translator and contributed to the translation of her own story. The result is fluent, crisp prose and a gripping read. She doesn’t over dramatise events and they are so ludicrous and devastating they speak for themselves. She manages to include flashes of humour in the narrative of her ordeal.

“While I was busy weaving scarves, humanity suffered a horrendous loss. Father Stalin, the man of genius, the leader of all peoples, died.”

“About a month later, obedient as ever, Comrade Klement Gottwald followed Iosif Vissarionovich into eternity. [….] The circumstances of his death were quite moving, although, of course, considerably less so than those of Stalin’s. After all, we are a much smaller country.”

My only gripe was that the book wasn’t long enough. It is perhaps understandable that it is dominated by her husband’s trial but there are only a few chapters on the war. I could have read more about the Nazi occupation and indeed about her post-1968 life. The book ends as Soviet tanks roll in to crush the Prague Spring.

Any Cop?: A powerful memoir and analysis of the twin tragedies of recent Czech history.

Anna Foden

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for commenting on my mother’s book. When she wrote it in 1972-3 the war was not ‘fashionable’ to comment on because of many other books published at that time and hence she decided to be fairly brief about that period. There is more filling up most of the gaps in my book ‘Reflections of Prague: Journeys through the 20th century’, Wiley 2006 which is a companion volume to my mother’ book.

  2. As the translator of this book from the Czech into the English, I thank you for bringing it to wider attention. Heda and I worked together on this text side by side and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity. If you are interested in more literature about Czechs Jews of the twentieth century please take a look at our ebooks: http://www.plunkettlakepress.com

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