“A shy little bird hidden in my rib cage”

December 14, 2010


Heda, back in Prague at one of her favorite cafes in the year 2000


“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.

“The first force was Adolf Hitler; the second, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin. The little bird, the third force, kept me alive to tell the story.”

(This is one of a very occasional series of dispatches on matters that are not directly related to the Mideast.)


SUFFERING THE VERY WORST OF 20TH CENTURY TOTALITARIANISM

By Tom Gross

Published in The National Post (Canada), in The Jerusalem Post (Israel), and other papers.
December 14, 2010

Anglo-Australian writer Clive James, reviewing the memoir of Heda Margolius-Kovaly several years ago, wrote: “Given 30 seconds to recommend a single book that might start a serious student on the hard road to understanding the political tragedies of the 20th century, I would choose this one.”

I met Heda, who was born Heda Bloch into a prosperous Czech-Jewish family and who died last week in Prague aged 91, several times over the years. And despite all she had suffered, she remained a vivacious and incredibly resilient woman, charming, thoughtful, and with a sense of fun.

“FOR GOD’S SAKE, WHAT BRINGS YOU HERE?”

After surviving Auschwitz and a “death march” to Bergen-Belsen, Heda arrived back in Czechoslovakia in 1945 at the home of a friend who had promised to be “an anchor” for the Jews deported from her circle. He greeted her with the words: “For God’s sake, what brings you here?”

She then ventured into the countryside to visit her family’s former home (her parents were gassed upon arrival in Auschwitz), where the Czech farmer who had been allocated her confiscated property slammed the door on her with the words: “So you’ve come back? Oh no. That’s all we’ve needed.”

“AIDING AND ABETTING CAPITALIST JEWS”

Heda’s first husband, Rudolf Margolius, was a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau. Disgusted by Fascism he joined the Communist party and rose to become deputy minister of foreign trade. But he was then murdered as part of the notorious anti-Semitic Slansky show trial which the Czechoslovak Communist party staged in 1952 at Stalin’s instigation, in order to hang the leading Communist Jews.

There is a Middle East connection to her story in the sense that her husband was accused of being a “Zionist agent” and of “aiding and abetting capitalist Jews trying to undermine Czechoslovak socialism”. Of course, this was all completely without foundation.

Having been prevented from seeing her husband for 11 months after his arrest, and after he and the other 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 Rudolf Margolius’s ashes were thrown under the wheels to create traction.



Rudolf Margolius in 1950 before his arrest


Heda’s persecution by the communist authorities continued for years after her husband was killed on the grounds that she was “the widow of the Zionist capitalist Jew”.

She and her four-year-old son, Ivan, were hounded by the secret police and shunned by former friends. She moved into an unheated shack in the mountains, where she struggled to support herself and her young child.

“A SHY LITTLE BIRD HIDDEN IN MY RIB CAGE”

“Three forces carved the landscape of my life,” she wrote in the opening lines of her memoir. “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.”

“The first force was Adolf Hitler; the second, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin,” she wrote. “The little bird, the third force, kept me alive to tell the story.”

Alfred Kazin, reviewing her memoir in The New York Times, wrote: “This is an extraordinary memoir, so heartbreaking that I have reread it for months, unable to rise to the business of ‘reviewing’ less a book than a life repeatedly outraged by the worst totalitarians in Europe. Yet it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovaly’s splendidness as a human being.”

AN OUTSTANDING TRANSLATOR

She eventually managed to flee Czechoslovakia in 1968, making her way to America where she was granted asylum and worked as a librarian at Harvard Law School. She returned to live in Prague after the fall of communism.

Her memoir was first published in 1973 as “The Victors and the Vanquished,” and later rewritten by the author and re-translated in the U.S. under the title “Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968,” and in Britain under the title “Prague Farewell.”

Peter Brod, one of the Czech intellectuals who subscribe to this list and who knew Heda well, adds that she was also a truly outstanding translator into Czech of English literature, particularly of Raymond Chandler, William Golding, Muriel Spark, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

Her son Ivan, who lives in London, tells me (through a mutual friend) that “she absolutely didn’t want any funeral or ceremony of any kind” (though there may be a memorial meeting in London at a later date).

--- Tom Gross

 

(Thank you to commentators, such as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who have recommended this article.)

(For another remarkable story of a Czech Jewish Holocaust survivor, please see The Lady In Number 6.)


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.