Thursday, January 26, 2017

Heda Margolius Kovaly (1919-2010) : Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968

Three forces carved the landscape of my life. Two of them crushed half the world. The third was very small and weak and, actually, invisible. It was a shy little bird hidden in my rib cage an inch or two above my stomach. Sometimes in the most unexpected moments the bird would wake up, lift its head, and flutter its wings in rapture. Then I too would lift my head because, for that short moment, I would know for certain that love and hope are infinitely more powerful than hate and fury, and that somewhere beyond the line of my horizon there was life indestructible, always triumphant.

The first force was Adolf Hitler; the second, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin. They made my life a microcosm in which the history of as small country in the heart of Europe was condensed. The little bird, the third force, kept me alive to tell the story... I carry the past inside me folded up like an accordion, like a book of picture postcards that people bring home as souvenirs from foreign cities, small and neat. But all it takes is to lift one corner of the top card for an endless snake to escape, zigzag joined to zigzag, the sign of the viper, and instantly all the pictures line up before my eyes. They linger, sharpen, and a moment of that distant past gets wedged into the works of my inner time clock. It stops, skips a beat, and loses part of the irreplaceable, irretrievable present... 
The first page of Heda Margolius Kovaly - Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968 
Inline images 1It seemed to us that we were witnessing a total break in the evolution of mankind, the complete collapse of man as a rational being. Heda Margolius Kovály

She was born Heda Bloch to Jewish parents in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where she lived until 1941 when her family was rounded up along with first 5,000 of the city's Jewish population and taken to the Lodz Ghetto in central Poland. Married to her childhood sweetheart, Rudolf Margolius, she was separated from her parents when the Jews were taken out of the ghetto and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. After arriving at Auschwitz, she was chosen to survive – though her parents were immediately gassed – and to work as a laborer in the Christianstadt labour camp. When the Eastern Front of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union approached the camp, its prisoners were evacuated. With a few other women in the first months of 1945, it was decided while on this journey to Bergen-Belsen, to escape back to Prague. After arriving in the city, Margolius discovered that most of the people who remained in the city during the war were too frightened by the threat of German punishment to aid an escapee from the camps.

When Soviet forces finally freed Prague from Nazi control the Communist Party began to rise. The experiences of her husband at Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps had led him to become a communist. Having been asked, he took a job with the Communist government of Klement Gottwald as Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade, despite his own and his wife's reservations about the position

In 1952, her husband was found guilty of conspiracy during the notorious Slansky trial. Rudolf was one of the eleven Jews on the list of fourteen accused. Having been prevented from seeing her husband for eleven months after his arrest, and after he and the other arrested Jews gave false confessions extracted by torture, Heda later learned that he had been hanged and his body cremated and given to security officials for disposal. In a final indignity, a few miles out of Prague, the officials’ limousine began to skid on the icy road and his ashes were thrown under the wheels to create traction. Related to 'a people's enemy' her life was made harder – "Heda was thrown out of her job and her apartment, and then additionally persecuted for being unemployed and homeless."  Their son, Ivan Margolius, was raised in impoverished conditions. For as long as the Communist Party remained in power, she was kept from good jobs and socially shunned. She did not tell Ivan the truth about what happened to his father until he was sixteen years old.