Books: Cultural Amnesia — Heda Margolius Kovály |
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Heda Margolius Kovály (b. ca. 1920) could have been sent into history specifically to remind us, after we have read about an initially worthy but fatally compliant apparatchik like Alexandra Kollantai, that there really can be such a creature as an incorruptible human being, and that it quite often takes a woman to be one. The broad details of Kovály’s life are outlined in the short essay below. Harder to evoke is the personality that sets its healing fire to every page of her terrible story. Reading Prague Farewell is like reading about Sophie Scholl, the most purely sacrificial protagonist of the White Rose resistance group in Munich in 1942; like reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope in its saddest chapters of resignation; like reading one of the interviews that the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali gave just after her friend Theo van Gogh was murdered in an Amsterdam street by a fanatic who took exception to her views about the subjection of women under Islam. Examples could be multiplied. Unfortunately, for some reason, they have hardly ever been codified: either the modern encyclopedia of feminist heroism has not yet been assembled, or else it has never been made popular. Almost certainly the reason is that ideology gets in the way. An uncomfortable number of the heroines achieved their true bravery by questioning the political cause they first espoused, and a chronicler who still espouses it is not likely to tell their story well, or at all. The real opportunity—to evoke a set of humanist values that lie beyond the grasp of any single political programme, and thus form a political and ethical ideal in themselves—remains untouched. Yet it would be a poor man who could finish reading Kovály’s book without asking himself how an experience like hers could ever have been thought to be subsidiary. Why, he must surely ask himself, isn’t this the central story? If the world can’t be ruled by the values that come naturally to a woman like her, how can it be worth living in?

* * *
A few miles out of Prague, the limousine began to slide on the icy road. The agents got out and scattered the ashes under its wheels.

GIVEN THIRTY SECONDS to recommend a single book that might start a serious young student on the hard road to understanding the political tragedies of the twentieth century, I would choose this one. The life of Heda Margolius Kovály is not to be envied. If we had to live a life like hers in order to come out of it with her spirit and dignity, we would be better off not living at all. But her life did have one feature that we can call a blessing. It dramatized, for our edification, the two great contending totalitarian forces, because they both chose her for a victim. As a Jewish teenager in Czechoslovakia she was fated to be swept up by the Nazis, and subsequently went right through the mill, starting with the Łódź ghetto and going all the way to Auschwitz, where she wound up in a block for young girls. Mercifully, in evoking her girls’ dormitory, she restricts herself to one scene. The girls had to kneel all night on the parade ground waiting to see one of their number punished the next morning for having tried to escape. Any of the kneeling girls who fell over was taken away to be gassed, so they had to hold each other up. In the morning, the recaptured escapee had her arms and legs broken in front of their eyes.

Emerging by sheer chance from that most hideous of grand tours, Heda walked home to Prague in good time for the next disaster. Between 1945, when she got back from Auschwitz, until 1948, when the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, there was a brief interlude, during which she had ample opportunity to realize that those who have made compromises under an occupation in order to survive are reluctant to meet anyone tactless enough to return from oblivion. But there were still some people left who had retained the rare combination of integrity and energy, and one of them was the man she married. All too soon, Rudolf Margolius was asked to be a minister in Klement Gottwald’s Communist government. Rudolf had his doubts, but as an honest and conscientious man he felt he couldn’t turn the job down. He threw himself into the task, ignoring the warnings of less gifted but wiser friends that he was throwing himself into a pit. His intelligence and ability earned their inevitable reward. In the Slánsky show trial, Rudolf was one of the eleven Jews on the list of fourteen accused. The rehearsed confessions were extracted, or rather instilled, under torture. They were well down to the standard of the pre-war Moscow trials. All the prisoners were found guilty of the crimes they had accused themselves of and most of them were duly hanged, including Rudolf. The bodies were burned and the bags of ashes were driven away to be distributed in the woods. But there was ice on the roads. Now look again at the quotation above.

For the murdered idealist’s young wife, what happened next was, if possible, worse. The classic Russian techniques of making life impossible for the family of a people’s enemy were in full swing, with additional refinements made possible by Czech inventiveness. Heda was thrown out of her job and her apartment, and then additionally persecuted for being unemployed and homeless. After Khrushchev finally blew the whistle on the Stalinist system in 1956, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria all rehabilitated their show trial victims before Czechoslovakia did. Not until 1963 was the truth told, and even then the information was officially restricted to the Party itself. Heda would have been justified in giving up on her country. She has hard things to say about its educated class, too many of whom knew all about the horrors of Soviet communism but thought that the Czech version would turn out more civilized because its apparatchiks—they had themselves in mind—would be more cultivated. But she found many examples of instinctive decency among the common people. She has, however, no sentimentality about anyone, and the most valuable aspect of a valuable book is how she is able to count heads in order to trace the insidious transition from one political catastrophe to another. According to her, there were plenty of democrats in Czechoslovakia after the war who realized the danger of yielding up their country to the next absolutism. But they were guilty about having yielded up their country to the last one. Abandoned by its supposedly liberal allies, the republic had let the Nazis in. During the Nazi occupation, the democrats had been demoralized by fear. The Nazis had crushed them and the Russians had saved them: they had done nothing for themselves. They felt powerless. Perhaps, they reasoned, it would take a new authoritarianism to create and preserve a just order. So they swam with what felt like the tide of history, trying to convince themselves that it was taking them somewhere even as it sucked them under.

All this is recounted in an exemplary amalgam of psychological penetration and terse style. In her few years of relatively normal existence before the 1968 Prague Spring and its bitter aftermath disrupted her life all over again, Heda earned a slim living as a translator from English. Raymond Chandler and Saul Bellow were two of her authors: perhaps their lively example got into her prose. The only fault in the book is that some of the remembered dialogue is too specifically dramatized to be credible. She would have done better to paraphrase it. Otherwise, everything is as neatly done as the sentence about the ashes. Her book should never have had to be written; but, since it had, we are lucky that it was done so well. American readers should note that in the U.S.A. it was called Under a Cruel Star. A Google search reveals that the book is on the course in several colleges, but it deserves to be lot more famous than that.