Obituary: Heda Margolius Kovaly, writer and translator
Heda Margolius Kovaly Born: 15 September, 1919, in Prague. Died: 5 December, 2010 in Prague, aged 91.
Czech writer and translator Heda Margolius Kovaly's memoir Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, which described her imprisonment by the Nazis during the Second World War and her persecution by the Communists in the 1950s, became a classic account of life under totalitarianism.
The daughter of prosperous Jews, Kovaly found her world turned inside out with the German annexation of Czechoslovakia.
With her family and her husband, Rudolf Margolius, she was deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland in 1941 and then, in 1944, to Auschwitz, where her parents were sent to the gas chambers on their arrival.
After being moved to the Christianstadt forced labour camp and toiling in a secret munitions factory and a brickyard, Kovaly escaped from a column of prisoners being marched to Bergen-Belsen in early 1945.
She made her way back to Prague, where she reunited with her husband, who had survived both Auschwitz and Dachau and, under the Communist government of Klement Gottwald, rose to become a deputy minister of foreign trade.
In 1952, Margolius and 13 other government officials, including Rudolf Slansky, the former general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, were arrested and charged with conspiring against the state.
All but two were Jewish, and all were found guilty in one of the era's most notorious show trials.
On 3 December, 1952, Margolius was hanged. His wife and their four-year-old son Ivan were hounded by the state and shunned by society.
Denied employment and thrown out of her apartment, she eked out a living doing translations under assumed names. In 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, she fled to Britain and then emigrated to the United States.
Margolius was officially, although secretly, rehabilitated in 1963.
When filling out a form for the Ministry of Justice that asked her to report any losses inflicted by her husband's arrest and execution, Kovaly drew up a list that included "loss of honour," "loss of health" and "loss of faith in the party and in justice". Only at the end of her ten-item list did she write "loss of property."
"I carry the past inside me like an accordion, like a book of picture postcards that people bring home as souvenirs from foreign cities, small and neat," she wrote in her memoir.
"But all it takes is to lift one corner of the top card for an endless snake to escape, zigzag joined to zigzag, the sign of the viper, and instantly all the pictures line up before my eyes."
In his book Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, Clive James praised Kovaly's "psychological penetration and terse style" before bestowing a remarkable accolade."Given 30 seconds to recommend a single book that might start a serious student on the hard road to understanding the political tragedies of the 20th century," James wrote, "I would choose this one."
Heda Bloch was born on 15 September, 1919, in Prague, where her father was a plant manager and financial officer with Waldes Koh-i-Noor, a manufacturer of dress fasteners with branches around the world.
After surviving the torment of the camps, she returned to a homeland in political and economic turmoil.
Unlike her husband, she took a sceptical view of Communism. It offered, she wrote in her memoir, "such clear, simple answers to the most complex questions that I kept feeling there must be a mistake somewhere".
Nevertheless, she and her husband joined the Communist Party in 1945. Margolius, after studying economics and working for an organisation to rebuild Czechoslovakia's postwar industry, was offered a post in the ministry of foreign trade after the Communists assumed power in 1948.
She married Pavel Kovaly, a lecturer in philosophy, in 1955. Under his name, she translated German, British and American fiction into Czech and eventually became recognised as one of Czechoslovakia's leading literary translators, known for her renditions of novels by Arnold Zweig, Heinrich Bll, William Golding, Muriel Spark, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
Her translations of Raymond Chandler inspired her to write a detective novel in Czech, Nevina (Innocence).
In 1963 she was summoned before the Central Committee of the Communist Party and shown a secret document exonerating her husband.
She repudiated it angrily, demanding that her husband's name be cleared publicly, that each accusation against him be refuted one by one and that a full inquiry into the case be initiated. She spent the rest of her life pursuing that goal, without success.
After emigrating to the United States, where Kovaly had taken a teaching post at Northeastern University in 1967, she worked as a librarian at the Harvard University Law School.
In 1996 the couple returned to Prague, where Kovaly died in 2006. She is survived by her son, Ivan Margolius, and five grandchildren.
Her son's family history, Reflections of Prague: Journeys Through the 20th Century, was published in 2006.
Kovaly's memoir was first published in 1973 as The Victors and the Vanquished, which contained a second memoir by Erazim Kohak. After being retranslated and edited, Kovaly's work was reissued in 1986 in Britain in 1988 under the title Prague Farewell.
Alfred Kazin, reviewing the first edition of the book in the New York Times Book Review, wrote: "This is an extraordinary memoir, so heart- breaking that I have reread it for months, unable to rise to the business of 'reviewing' less a book than a life repeatedly outraged by the worst totalitarians in Europe."Yet it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovaly's splendidness as a human being."
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