One-Minute Book Reviews

April 20, 2012

Heda Kovály’s Memoir of Nazi and Stalinist Tyranny, ‘Under a Cruel Star’

Filed under: Classics,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:23 pm
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A firsthand account of a courageous woman’s life at Auschwitz and in Communist Czechoslovakia

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968 By Heda Margolius Kovály. Translated by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author. Holmes & Meier, 192 pp., $15, paperback. First published as The Victors and the Vanquished (Horizon Press, 1973), translated by Ezrahim Kohák.

By Janice Harayda

Two of the least apt euphemisms in English are “concentration camp” and “Stalinist purge.” Nothing was “concentrated” in Hitler’s crematoria except for misery and death. And nothing was “purged” by Stalinist demagogues except human liberty and life.

Heda Kovály shows how much the euphemisms mask in Under a Cruel Star, a classic memoir of 20th-century totalitarianism. Perhaps her greatest achievement is describing her ghastly experiences during and after World War II with a self-respect that her Nazi and Stalinist oppressors tried again and again to crush.

Kovály was born to well-off Czech parents and lived a comfortable life in Prague until the Nazis herded her and her family along with thousands of other Jews into the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, a slum without sewage, “walled off with a board fence and barbed wire.” It was the first of a series of internments, each more barbarous than the last. At Auschwitz, she and other prisoners had to watch as guards broke the arms and legs of a girl who had tried to escape, then dragged her off to a gas chamber. Kovály nonetheless made a bold and successful attempt to escape during a forced march to Bergen-Belsen, only to find during a desperate house-to-house search for shelter in Prague that most of her old friends turned her away for fear of SS reprisals.

After the war, Kovályand her husband, Rudolf Margolius, had a son, and Rudolf accepted under official pressure a high post in the ministry of foreign trade in newly Communist Czechoslovakia. The party falsely accused him of treason, executed him and his co-defendants after a show trial, and ostracized his widow and young child. Kovály finally fled Czechoslovakia as Soviet tanks arrived to crush the pro-democracy movement in 1968.

Those scant facts don’t begin to suggest the physical and psychological suffering Kovály endured. For 27 years, she seems rarely to have had a day when she wasn’t cold, sick, hungry, homeless, or shunned for the unjust charges against her husband, who was exonerated as the process of de-Stalinization began under Khruschev. Along with life-threatening hardships, Kovály faced countless smaller humiliations. She writes that when survivors of Dachau or Auschwitz spoke of their experiences after the war, their more fortunate friends responded with comments such as, “Oh, yes, we too have suffered, how often there was not even margarine to spread on our bread …”

Kovály focuses on what she experienced and appears never to pad her book with accounts by historians or other victims, which makes her book read like a swift-moving dystopian novel narrated by a wise and clear-eyed storyteller who is appropriately outraged by what she sees. By dint of her husband’s work, she observed at close range the actions of the powerful, including the Party leaders who made scapegoats of Rudolf Margolius and others. That proximity to officialdom allows her include in her memoir a rare combination of poignant domestic scenes and telling observations about signal events of the Cold War.

Under a Cruel Star has much in common with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s account of the kidnapping of her infant son, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. Like Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Kovály married a prominent man and faced tragedy in full view of the public. She has Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s courage, intelligence, and keenness of perception about people and events. And she retained a similar ability to appreciate joy and beauty amid tragedy. Kovály died at the age of 91 in 2010, and her son, Ivan, said that her message to the world was: “I loved you! Live on!”

Best line: The government eventually offered to compensate Kovály for her husband’s execution and asked her to list her losses. She wrote: “Losses my Son and I Suffered Due to the Arrest and Conviction of Dr. Rudolf Margolius: (a) Loss of father (b) Loss of husband (c) Loss of honor (d) Loss of health (e) Loss of employment and possibility to complete studies (f) loss of faith in the Party and in justice.” Only at the very end did she write: “Loss of property.”

Worst line: “Sometime in the fall of 1951, I believe it was in November, Secretary General of the Party Rudolf Slánský was arrested.” Why the “I believe”? It should have been easy to confirm the date of that well-known incident.

Caveat lector: All quotations in this review come from The Victors and the Vanquished, translated by Ezrahim Kohák and published along with his memoir. Some material in the retranslated Under the Cruel Star may differ.

About the author: After the war, Kovály translated German, British and American fiction into Czech, including books by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark, William Golding, and Arnold Zweig.

Furthermore: Alfred Kazin said in a review of Kovály’s book quoted in her New York Times obituary: “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.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda

April 14, 2012

Next Week — ‘Under a Cruel Star,’ A Classic Memoir of Totalitarianism

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:47 pm
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Critics have hailed Heda Kovály’s Under a Cruel Star as a modern classic about one woman’s experiences first under Nazis and later under Stalinist tyrants who falsely accused her husband of treason and executed him along with his co-defendants in an infamous show trial. Alfred Kazin wrote when the memoir first appeared in America more than 30 years ago that “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 Kovály’s splendidness as a human being.” One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of the book next week.


October 10, 2006

Igal Sarna’s Lost Israelis

A former tank commander explores the cost of exile with a style reminiscent of the early Joan Didion

The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle: Israeli Lives. By Igal Sarna. Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman. Vintage, 210 pp., $13, paperback.

Igal Sarna is a literary journalist who has no precise counterpart in the United States, and not just because he served as a tank commander in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He writes about the hidden lives of ordinary Israelis with an insight and clarity that recalls both the high style of the early Joan Didion and the medical precision of Irwin Yalom, the author of a memorable book of psychiatric case histories called Love’s Executioner (Basic, 1989).

Each of the 14 essays in The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle profiles a person or group whose life has been cleft by tragedy — men and women uprooted by the Holocaust, beaten in Iraqi-ruled Kurdistan, and tortured in a Syrian prison. Sarna’s subjects came to Israel seeking new lives but were overmatched by war, loneliness, poverty or the harshness of the Negev Desert. Many committed suicide or became “shells of human beings,” casualties of social service agencies overwhelmed by the crush of refugees. The happiest is a 92-year-old Kurdish Jew who once used a hoe to kill a snake that had slithered into his home on a hill slope and still drinks tea flecked with the brown ants that infest his sugar supply. Sarna offers compassionate but unromanticized portraits of all of them and makes clear that their failings, if profound, were never theirs alone. The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle shows a side of modern Israel that few others have described with such poignancy.

Recommended if … you miss the glory days of “the new journalism,” or want to understand the long-term effects on the human psyche of decades of crises in the Mideast.

Best lines: “Faulty immigrant reasoning, and a desire to save money, made them decide to live in Beersheeba’s huge neighborhood of ready-made caravan homes, one of dozens of such camps set up all over the country in the 1990s to the house hundreds of thousands of newcomers from Russia. But whoever begins their life in Israel in a place of that sort seals their fate. The desert is a hard place in and of itself, and needs a lot of greenery to soften it form human habitation. The caravan neighborhood, where each home has just over 200 feet of floor space, is a merciless patch of desolation. The homes are made of cheap, graceless material and stand on bare earth that sends up a cloud of dust with each footstep. Electrical wires strech overhead, thin bars separating human from sky.”

Worst line: None.

Caveat reader: This review doesn’t assess the accuracy of the translation by Haim Watzman.

Published: October 2002

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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