Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review:Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 by Heda Margolius Kovaly

(ISBN 0-14-0126630)

There are few autobiographies as powerful and heart-wrenching as this one, filled with the profoundly moving account of what one woman suffered; a tale of her tragedies and her triumphs, and a testament to her will to survive.

Heda starts with the first of the many horrible tragedies of her life: the order for all the Jews in Prague to Lodtz. There, living in abject poverty, she watched many people die, including a cousin who died in her arms. But worse came afterwards when they are moved from Lodtz to Auschwitz.

The horror of Auschwitz begins with her mother dragged away to her death. The horrific tale of her life there cannot be imagined, even with the the words on the pages to help. And yet Heda did the seemingly impossible. She not only survived, she escaped.

Finally, back to Prague she found something she had not expected -- friends turn away from her in fear, and she has virtually no where to go. She didn't blame them. It meant death to harbor her -- and yet, there is a sense of such loss in this section that it's not hard to believe that she was willing to die then, when she had survived so much else.

But the war comes to an end. The Russians arrive and drive out the German occupation force. And for awhile... for too short a while, there is joy and wonder in her life again. Her beloved Rudolf had also survived. It seemed impossible, and yet they are together. They have a life and a future.

At this point, Heda presents an interesting view of how it was that Czechoslovakia went willingly to a Socialist government. She has many personal observances that seem to be a good explanation of how this country turned from democracy to socialism in those post-war years.

First was the feeling all during the war that their Western allies had betrayed and abandoned them to the Germans. Then, at the end of the war, the Americans held off and it was the Russians who drove their tanks through Prague and freed the city. Also was the fact that so many people had been living within a communal sort of environment already, sharing all they had to survive, that they understood the need to 'share the wealth'. Heda isn't as convinced that socialism is the best answer, but her husband is, and soon the country moves toward its new future.

For a while, all is well. Rudolf holds a high post in the local party government, but even now there are feelings of stress. Heda, with her new baby son, is perhaps more aware of the bullying by some party members than is her husband, who truly believes in what he is doing. He's convinced they are making a better future.

But then the arrests begin. It is the start of the Stalinist Purges. People disappear. No one trusts anyone else. A single wrong word, a whisper of dislike at anything created for or by the Party, and they were apt to be disciplined -- or arrested. The dream of a communal life disappeared as the top people in the Party did all they could to hold on to power.

The arrest of her husband puts Heda in a difficult position. She has a young child, and because her husband is suspected of treason, she has trouble finding any work at all. Her position at a publishing house disappears. She's strong, though. She will do everything in her power to help her son and her husband. She takes a job working in a factory, she writes letters to everyone she knows. Nothing helps. She is not good at the factory job, but she works, often long after hours, to make up her quota. She does her best for her son....

Months and months pass, and she grows dangerous ill. She holds it off as long as she can, but then finally sends her son to the country when a doctor finally puts her into the hospital. And there, listening to the radio, she hears her husband's voice at the trial ... and the words of his confession. It is, she knows, not the truth. She knows what he must have suffered at the hands of those who held him. It is no better than the Nazis and the concentration camps.

They literally kick her out of the hospital, even though she is still very ill. She is a persona non grata now -- her husband a traitor. After Rudolf is executed, she loses her job, even their apartment, and she and her son live in a hovel until, finally, a friend finally saves her. He marries her, and because he has married the former wife of a traitor, he loses his job. But they survive. They continue on. For awhile, it even looks as though things will be better, in the 1960's when the Czech people rebel against the audacities of the Party leaders who ruled while Stalin lived. It looks better. Things are brighter. It's spring again ...

And then the Russian tanks invade to bring the country back in line once more, and Heda, reluctantly, finally leaves the country behind.

My bare recitation of the events cannot begin to do justice to the anguish of reading this memoir. It is a book that will put your own petty problems into perspective. Even her son left Czechoslovakia because he could not continue to live in a land that had allowed all of his family to be killed. Except for his mother, every one of his relatives had died, and none of them had died naturally.

There is no true victory in this book. You do not come away from it filled with the joy of human triumphs over adversity and evil. You come away appalled at the horrible things that people will do to each other. Through Heda's simple, poignant words, you understand the pain and the loss -- but there will never be a true answer to why it has happened.

But in the end... in the end, Heda survived.

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