Thursday, 17 December 2015

under a cruel star; a life in prague 1941-1968 [heda margoilis kovály]

There are several little known second world war texts written by Jewish writers, besides those of Primo Levi. Mihail Sebastian’s tragic diary is one, Piotr Raciz’s novel is another. Heda Margoilis Kovály’s memoir incorporates not merely the horror of the concentration camps but also the subsequent Stalinist purges in her native Czechoslovakia, which lead to the death of her husband. At times it is a terrible document, laced with a survivor’s chutzpah. The book contains three principle sections. The first describes her experiences in the second world war; the second the events surrounding her husband’s murder by the state; and the final section deals with the Prague Spring. The stories from the second world war are unadorned and brutal. They include one astonishing anecdote, when the young and spirited Heda tells a local factory owner exactly what the Nazis were doing. He has either been unaware of feigned unawareness; her account stuns him. It’s impossible to know what people did or didn’t know in wartime Germany about the extremity of the barbarism of Nazi policy. This anecdote is one of the few, coming from a Jewish source, which suggests that the state acted at a level the populace was unaware of. Having escaped, Heda is then subjected to another kind of ignominy, which is the way in which her fellow Czechs are too scared to protect her once she gets to Prague. This prefigures what will happen to her in the fifties, when the local population buys the Communist state’s lies and accords her and her son pariah status following the false imprisonment and execution of her husband, Rudolf. This episode contains a terrible sense of inevitable doom, with Heda unable to change the tide of history. To say it’s a Kafkaesque fable might seem somewhat obvious, but to think that he was another Prague Jew who, but for his early death, might have shared this fate, is unnerving. As though in his novels he is prefiguring what will happen to his countrymen and women over the course of the following decades. The final section, which describes events surrounding the Prague Spring, is revelatory in so far as it shows that, even though Dubcek and the reformers failed, they sowed the seed for the eventual demise of the repressive regime through the way in which the people themselves changed as a result of a taste of freedom. A change what would take another 20 years to bear fruit, but, as Kovály’s memoir shows, the pace of history operates in a way is not always apparent on the surface. Kovály’s book is another testament to the power of literature, or the written word, as an agent of resistance; no matter how crushed the human spirit, the word will always remain as a weapon to counteract the banal cruelties of history. 

No comments: