Friday, May 22, 2015

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, by Heda Margolius Kovály

Holmes & Meier, 1997
originally published 1973 as Na vlastní kůži
translated by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein, "with the author"
192 pp


Finding this book was a stroke of luck, actually.  After having read Kovály's novel Innocence; or Murder on Steep Street (Soho, June 2015), I realized that the crime component of that book wasn't the entire story there.  The time, the place, and the people are what really stuck out for me, and it hit me that the story going on all around the mystery was much more important than the crime itself. I decided that I absolutely had to know more about this woman, and bought this book. What better place could there be to find out what motivated her than her own memoirs?  Under a Cruel Star is a short but very powerful book, one that you won't forget after you've finished it. It is a story of a woman who managed to survive during two extremely repressive regimes; it is also an examination of human nature and the moral choices people make under these circumstances.

Kovály's memoir covers a span of time from 1941 to 1968.  The author found herself part of the  "mass deportation" of the Jews from Prague that began in 1941, where, along with her family, she was sent to the Łódź ghetto.  They joined "close to one hundred thousand Polish Jews living in unimaginable conditions," but  Kovály found herself transported to Auschwitz before the end of the war and taken to do labor at another work camp.  As the Russian troops were advancing and were "so close to our camp that we could hear the rumbling of battle," the Nazis evacuated the camp, making the prisoners walk under heavy guard from Poland into Germany.  During this journey, the author and a small group of women decided to make a break for freedom and made it back to the Czech border.  Upon arriving in Prague, she discovered that trying to find food and shelter, even from friends, was not an easy task. Even her very best friend who had promised her family that he would do anything he could for them, reacts with horror when she knocks on his door.  After asking her what sense it would make "to risk one life for another," he admits that he's driven by fear -- after all, on the streets, columns were posted with lists of names who had been "executed for crimes against the Reich," which often meant entire families had been killed for trying to help, as she writes, "someone like me." Luckily, Kovály was taken in and helped by the Resistance up until the end of the war, when it was safe to return from hiding. During this time she married her husband Rudolf.

Yet, as she writes,  survivors were always not welcomed home with opened arms -- they'd often find themselves coming back to no home, or to trusted friends who'd kept their property and who now denied anything had been left with them.  Even worse, when they tried to get legal help, they were often scorned:
"It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies. He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in the corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about. Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer's sonorous voice would boom through the crack, 'You would have thought we'd be rid of them finally, but no, they're impossible to kill off -- not even Hitler could manage it. Every day there're more of them crawling back, like rats..."
The survivors -- the Jews, partisans, returning political prisoners -- also had to contend with black marketeers and former collaborators who turned the Nazi defeat to their own advantage. Bureaucracies forced the returnees to jump through near-impossible hoops to get their lives going again.   Kovaly notes that she didn't find it surprising that people would turn to Communism, due to the "sheer despair over human nature which showed itself at its very worst after the war." Other factors (including the failure of prewar democratic ideals, the forsaking of the country by Western Allies, and the liberation of Prague by the USSR, plus blatant lies of citizens who'd lived in the Soviet Union) helped to set the stage for the rise of Communism in Czechoslovakia.  The author also states that "the most eagerly embraced belief of the time was that no national or racial oppression could exist under Communism."  While true that not everyone joined the Communist Party, Heda and her then husband Rudolf Margolius did, buying into the idea that building socialism would result in "peace, in an industrially-advanced country, with an intelligent, well-educated population."  But, as she goes on to explain, by the early 1950s these ideals had been largely forgotten and things had decidely turned for the worse, even though her husband had a high-level position in the new government. Arrests were being made under the "direct guidance of Soviet advisors whose task it was to purge the ranks;" ironically, as she says, those who had never joined the Party actually enjoyed a "temporary respite." Her husband, sadly, became a victim of the purges, despite his high Ministry position, he was arrested and eventually  executed as part of the Slanksy affair which resulted in other arrests, a series of show trials,  and state-ordered executions in 1952.

The bulk of this book is in how Heda survived after her husband's arrest, his official ouster from the Party, and his death. For her, it was a time in which she lost everything but her son.  Her name was enough to deny her even the most basic necessities -- for example,  once while at death's door she was turned out of a hospital when they discovered who she was. Her work was terminated and she was left wondering how to make ends meet. Only a few brave people would continue to even associate with her and even some of her son's friends were no longer allowed to play with him. She spares nothing in describing how all-encompassing life under the Communists could be -- the regime reached down into every aspect of life, controlling seemingly ordinary people through brutality and fear. Ironically, while the average citizen on the street finds his or her life sliding into chaos, the powers-that-be led altogether different lifestyles.  Her account ends with a brief Prague Spring under 1968 before the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia; she herself left the country shortly afterwards.

There were times while I read this book that I was appalled, but quite frankly, there were times when I could seriously understand why some people made the choices that they did. While Under a Cruel Star is a very personal story, it can also be seen as an exploration of human nature under the most arduous and extreme conditions.   You can also read it as an understanding of how the best of idealistic intentions can often result in a nightmare.  It is also a study in the effects of totalitarianism on everyday, average people who, because of the need  to survive in an atmosphere of complete fear, often feel compelled to choose self-interest over the welfare of  fellow human beings,  keeping their heads down and getting on with their lives. Thankfully, there were others who chose not to go that route, or the author and countless others like her might never have survived.  I don't often read memoirs but as difficult as this one was to get through at times, I'm very happy I did. Highly recommended.


  1. Great review and very helpful. I've ordered a copy. Thanks!

    1. I hope you like it. I don't know what I would have done in her shoes.

  2. Heda Kovaly's memoir Under A Cruel Star is also available as an eBook: