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.