Czech point of departure

April 11, 2012

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968.Heda Margolius Kovály Granta, £12.99

Caressing communism: a Czech woman kisses a soldier from the liberating Russian army, Prague, May 5 1945

Caressing communism: a Czech woman kisses a soldier from the liberating Russian army, Prague, May 5 1945

Towards the beginning of this memoir, Heda Kovaly writes that "if every beginning is hard, the 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.

Kovaly records how she told interested 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

Last updated: 2:10pm, April 11 2012