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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Paul Maley

ODD, where we find the sto­ries that af­fect us the most. Not long ago I was sit­ting in a beach house re­cov­er­ing from an un­usu­ally foul hang­over, the legacy of an an­nual booze-up I in­dulge in with a group of old school friends. Seek­ing des­per­ately a dis­trac­tion, I hap­pened across Heda Mar­golius Ko­valy’s Prague Farewell, or Un­der a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, as it was orig­i­nally pub­lished.

Ko­valy was a Czech Jew who sur­vived the Holo­caust only to watch as her life was de­voured by the com­mu­nist tyranny that fol­lowed it. A pretty girl of gen­tle birth, Ko­valy lived through Auschwitz, although her fam­ily did not. Dur­ing a forced march to Ber­genBelsen she es­caped and made her way back to Prague. There, she lived a fugi­tive ex­is­tence, shunned by ter­ri­fied friends.

Although Ko­valy was scep­ti­cal of the utopian prom­ises that beck­oned in the af­ter­math of the war, her hus­band was not. Ko­valy be­came a reluc­tant com­mu­nist, but Ru­dolf Mar­golius was an ar­dent one, even­tu­ally ris­ing to deputy min­is­ter of for­eign trade.

Ko­valy writes of how sur­vivors of the war were se­duced by the so­cial­ist mi­rage, see­ing it as Nazism’s po­lar op­po­site. ‘‘ It came to seem that only an­other rev­o­lu­tion could undo what the first had done,’’ she says.

The Czechs were not the first peo­ple to be se­duced by the false charms of utopian ide­ol­ogy. It is an en­dur­ing delu­sion, although per­haps not as an­cient as some would sup­pose. English philoso­pher John Gray ar­gues that the im­pulse to re­make the world via vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion, elim­i­nat­ing in the process all hu­man con­flict, is a post-En­light­en­ment fan­tasy. No­body in the pre-mod­ern world had any il­lu­sions about the true na­ture of man.

In the end the sys­tem Mar­golius had so faith­fully served, and whose creep­ing evils he had ra­tio­nalised as the birth pangs of a higher moral or­der, rounded on him. In 1952 he was con­victed, along with 13 oth­ers (11 of them Jews) in a Moscow-driven show trial.

It was a year be­fore Ko­valy was al­lowed to see her hus­band. She couldn’t touch him, or pass on pic­tures of their son. The next day he was hanged. Years later she would learn that gov­ern­ment agents had scat­tered his ashes un­der the wheels of their limou­sine to stop it skid­ding on the icy road. ‘‘ More than 30 years have now passed and that night is still not over,’’ Ko­valy writes of their final meet­ing. ‘‘ It re­mains to this day as a screen on to which my present life is pro­jected. I mea­sure all my hap­pi­ness and all my mis­for­tunes against it, in the way that the height of the moun­tains and the depth of the val­leys are mea­sured against the level of the sea.’’

The Nazi ter­ror de­scribed by Ko­valy was eas­ily the more bru­tal. But there was a cru­elty to Marx­ism that even the Nazis could not match. Ko­valy was evicted from her apart­ment and fired from her job. Her pos­ses­sions were sold and she and her son en­dured years of bu­reau­cratic per­se­cu­tion. Once more, she was shunned by friends. This, to a woman who fought her coun­try’s in­vaders with the Czech re­sis­tance.

To in­vest such hope in the birth of a dream, only to watch it de­stroy your fam­ily is, in a sense, worse than hav­ing your mother ripped from your arms at the gates of Auschwitz. Whereas Ko­valy’s chron­i­cle of life un­der the Third Re­ich is one of plain evil, her tale of life as a com­mu­nist sub­ject is one of be­trayal. When the Rus­sian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968 Ko­valy fled to the US.

Prague Farewell is con­sid­ered some­thing of a clas­sic in Europe, although it re­mains largely un­known here. In Cul­tural Am­ne­sia, Clive James nom­i­nates it as one of the most au­thor­i­ta­tive mem­oirs of its kind.

The beach house in which I en­coun­tered this com­pelling tale had also be­longed to a Czech Jew. Babi, as my friend’s grand­mother had been known, nar­rowly sur­vived the Holo­caust, even serv­ing with the Czech re­sis­tance. The pro­ceeds of her pros­per­ous life helped fund the mar­vel­lous con­struc­tion in which I now sat, hang­over and all.

Ko­valy lived to see the end of the sec­ond great tyranny that blighted the 20th cen­tury. She re­turned to Prague three years af­ter the Vel­vet Rev­o­lu­tion. She died there, in 2010, at age 91. Like Babi, her long life was in the end her great­est act of de­fi­ance.

Jane Fraser is on leave.

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