Memoir of life in Prague mirrors the history of Central Europe

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, by Heda Margolius Kov'aly. Translated from the Czech by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author. Cambridge, Mass.: Plunkett Lake Press. 192 pp. $9.95 (paperback original). In this tautly written memoir, Heda Margolius Kov'aly tells a story that would indeed seem beyond belief were it not that we have heard many such stories in our time, and that we know there are many more, as yet unheard, or perhaps never to be heard. Ms. Kov'aly's story is the story of a life shattered first by the genocidal devastations of Hitlerism and again by the brutal repressions of Stalinism: a life that she herself rightly perceives as a ``microcosm'' mirroring the macrocosm of mid-century Central European history. At the same time, her shrewd speculations and analysis bear the unmistakable stamp of having been formed by firsthand experience.

Born in the beautiful old city of Prague, Kov'aly was deported in the fall of 1941, along with the rest of the city's Jews, to the Lodz ghetto, her first stop on a road that led through several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. When the Red Army came through to liberate the camps, the Nazis were so determined to hold on to their victims that they forced them along on the retreat. From one such death march, Kov'aly managed to escape and make her way back to Prague. There she was reunited with Rudolf Margolius, who had escaped from Dachau. They married and had a son.

After a great deal of soul-searching and with some serious reservations (more on her part than his) they joined the Communist Party. Rudolf, an economist, served in the Czech Ministry of Foreign Trade. Arrested and tried along with 13 others (most of them Jewish) in the 1952 Slansky trial, he was forced to confess to crimes he had never committed, then was hanged along with 10 others. Only years later, well after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's crimes, did the Czech Communist Party get around to admitting its error, although not to acknowledging any guilt. Kov'aly later witnessed the all too brief flowering of freedom of the ``Prague Spring'' of 1968. As the grip of repression tightened once again, she left her beloved city and now lives in a Boston suburb.

An earlier version of this book was first published in 1973. ``Under a Cruel Star'' is a new translation, prepared with the author, and some of the earlier content has been revised. Working as a translator in Prague, Kov'aly found great pleasure in rendering the likes of Saul Bellow, William Golding, and Heinrich B"oll into Czech. Now, speaking for herself in her own voice, she proves to be a wonderfully expressive writer.

Although her approach is above all personal, Kov'aly's reflections on her experiences reveal a high degree of insight into politics, individual and institutional behavior, and the formation of attitudes.

She pinpoints the terrible irony of how the very people most victimized under the Nazi occupation still were not vindicated after liberation: ``The innocent became a living reproach and a potential threat to the guilty.'' She speculates that many people turned to communism ``out of sheer despair with human nature. ... Since it is impossible for men to give up on mankind, they blame the social order....''

The power of this story is beyond question. Kov'aly has told it in a way that enables us to share at least some measure of the intensity of her own shock, joy, grief, courage, and indignation. But over and above enlisting our sympathy and stirring our feelings in favor of ideals we may already value - freedom, truth, and justice - this book challenges our residual complacency, because it tells of small, hard-won victories amid large, all but crushing defeats.

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