Sunday, June 14, 2015

Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968

Heda Margolius Kovaly's Under A Cruel Star is not a work of crime fiction, although it is full of terrible acts perpetrated by individuals against others.  Unfortunately, the Holocaust, and the repressive regimes supported by the Soviet Union in post-World War Two Eastern Europe are all too real, and they happened to millions and millions of innocent victims.  This is the true story of Heda Kovaly's Innocence.

The Holocaust only gets about a chapter here, and Kovaly's time in Auschwitz is completely left out.  She is sent to the ghetto at Lodz, Poland, in 1941, and from there to various concentration camps.  She manages to escape from a forced march at the end of the war, and returns to Prague while it is still occupied by the Germans.  She survives this hell - barely, the book is as much about the anguish of survival as it is about the hell of the camps - only to find herself and her young family immersed in the stranger-than-fiction world of Soviet-style communism.  Her husband, a true believer, became a government functionary.  Kovaly herself never bought into the ideology, although she wanted to believe in a better future for her beloved Czechoslovakia.
  "That I myself did not succumb to the lure of ideology was certainly not because I was smarter than Rudolf but because I was a woman, a being much closer to the reality and the basic things of life than he was.  I was more interested in what was happening around me in the present, among the people I loved, than in the foggy spheres of ideology.  Rudolf could decide on the basis of statistics - mostly falsified of course - that under communism people lived a better and happier life.  I saw from close-up and with my own eyes that this was not true."  (65)
For his belief in science, and search for a better way, Rudolf is caught up in a web of denunciations related to someone else, imprisoned, tried, found guilty, and executed.  Barely a decade later, he and others who were killed as part of this show trial were exonerated, reluctantly, by the government.  This is the story of his wife's survival.  It is truly a memoir, much in her head, an outpouring of memories that need to be on paper to be preserved.  It is harrowing, depressing, unbelievable, and all too real.

When you read this account, you will realize how much of Innocence is drawn from Kovaly's life, and how the isolation of the survivor and the pariah are so similar.  Shortly after her initial return to Prague, Kovaly wanders the city, desperately searching for a place to stay that will not betray a friend to the occupying authorities.  Near the end of her rope she goes to the last person she can think of.
  "I walked up and down in front of the house for a while.  I had decided that I would not try to see anyone else.  Ruda would not be home anyway.  He might not eve live here anymore. Some Germans might have requisitioned his apartment.  It was dangerous and hopeless.  Still, I wanted to do something:  to walk, to think, to see, to postpone death for just a little bit longer.  To have someone talk to me.  To feel for one more moment that I still belonged to humanity."  (36)

Kovaly's survival instinct is her need for connection with other humans, but not just face time, she needs actual engagement, grounded in honesty and respect.  Is that so much to ask?, is really the theme here.  She does find it, and goes on to lead a long life in the US, even living here in Our Fair City for a time.  But her Soviet Prague, even if less violent, is darker and more frightening than William Ryan's Soviet Union - because of course it is real.  Under A Cruel Star is not crime fiction, but true crime.

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