Czech point of de­par­ture

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment - RE­VIEWED BY VANESSA CUR­TIS

Heda Mar­golius Kovály Granta, £12.99

TO­WARDS THE be­gin­ning of this mem­oir, Heda Ko­valy writes that “if ev­ery be­ginni ng i s har d , t he be­gin­ning of hard­ship is the hard­est.” She was re­fer­ring to the end of her com­fort­able life with pros­per­ous par­ents and the be­gin­ning of a train jour­ney de­port­ing Cze­choslo­vakian Jews to the freez­ing hell of the Lodz ghetto in 1941.

Af­ter sur­viv­ing Lodz and sev­eral other in­car­cer­a­tions, in­clud­ing in Auschwitz, Ko­valy es­caped from a line of pris­on­ers march­ing to Ber­gen-belsen and man­aged to get back to her beloved Prague. There, the strug­gle for money, food, truth and jus­tice that was to mark most of her adult life be­gan in earnest.

Ru­dolf Mar­golius, her hus­band, be­came a com­mu­nist and was pro­moted to the role of deputy min­is­ter of for­eign trade but, as the econ­omy failed, scape­goats were sought. He was wrongly ac­cused of anti-state con­spir­acy and sen­tenced to death.

From then on­wards, Ko­valy’s life took on a sin­is­ter edge. Per­se­cuted un­der Cze­choslo­vakia’s com­mu­nist rule dur­ing the 1950s and ’60s, ren­dered home­less, ill and starv­ing, she fought both to sur­vive and to clear the name of her hus­band (sadly, the public ex­on­er­a­tion never ma­te­ri­alised).

Ko­valy is a fine writer, with a painterly and sub­ver­sive eye for de­tail and col­lab­o­rated with Franci and He­len Ep­stein in the English trans­la­tion of the book — of which she de­votes lit­tle to her time in Auschwitz, wisely sur­mis­ing that “once things and thoughts are expressed and de­scribed they ac­quire a new re­al­ity”.

Nonethe­less, her de­scrip­tion of the last time she saw her mother, who was be­ing led to­wards the gas cham­bers — “swal­lowed by the thou­sand-headed ser­pent which was dis­ap­pear­ing into a win­dow­less build­ing in the dis­tance” — leaves an in­deli­ble im­age of hor­ror.

Ko­va­lyrecord­show­shetold­in­ter­ested par­ties for years af­ter­wards that Auschwitz was not the way most peo­ple imag­ined it. Stay­ing alive was “sim­ple and nat­u­ral” but there was “noth­ing harder than wait­ing pas­sively for death.”

This mem­oir cov­ers only 27 of the au­thor’s 91 years (af­ter liv­ing in Amer­ica for a num­ber of years, she re­turned to Prague in 1996 and died there in 2010). In the pe­riod cov­ered, she sur­vived more hard­ship and heartbreak than most peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence in a life­time. When Prague is de­scribed as “alive, sad, and brave… when she smiles with spring, her smile glis­tens like a tear”, Ko­valy could be talk­ing about her­self. Feisty, fiercely con­cerned with sur­vival, truth and jus­tice and able to win over even the most hard-hearted of of­fi­cials (she hi­lar­i­ously re­calls how she man­aged to get her­self an apart­ment by un­dress­ing in the of­fice of the hous­ing au­thor­ity’s chair­man), Ko­valy’s re­silient per­son­al­ity shines out of this mem­oir.

It is a bit of a sur­prise to learn that death did even­tu­ally con­quer her. Vanessa Cur­tis is the au­thor of a bi­og­ra­phy of Virginia Woolf and a num­ber of chil­dren’s books

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