Heda Kovaly: Writer who chronicled her Holocaust survival and Communist persecution

By Martin Childs
Monday 07 March 2011 01:00

Heda Kovály was a Czech author and translator who wrote the acclaimed memoir Under a Cruel Star describing her imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps and her persecution under Czechoslovakia's communist rule during the 1950s and '60s.

The "psychological penetration and terse style" of her account of life under totalitarian rule was praised by Clive James, who wrote: "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... I would choose this one."

She was born Heda Bloch in Prague in 1919, the daughter of prosperous Jews. Her father worked for a manufacturer of dress fasteners. But in 1939 Germany invaded and in October 1941, Heda, her family and her new husband, Rudolf Margolius, were deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland. They survived almost three years of horrific conditions; more than 100,000 perished. In 1944, the survivors were transported to Auschwitz, where her parents were sent to the gas chambers.

Heda was moved to the Christianstadt labour camp and worked in a munitions factory and brickyard. With the Red Army advancing the camp was evacuated, and on a forced march to Bergen-Belsen she escaped. She made her way back to Prague and was reunited with her husband, who had survived Auschwitz and Dachau.

Like many, her husband joined the Communist Party "out of sheer despair over human nature, which showed itself at its very worst after the war." With some scepticism, Heda joined, too. She later wrote, "It offered such clear, simple answers to the most complex questions that I kept feeling there must be a mistake somewhere."

Margolius worked for an organisation to rebuild the country's industry, and following the 1948 Communist take-over, he rose to deputy minister of foreign trade. But in 1952 he was arrested along with 13 others. The arrests followed similar developments in Hungary, Bulgaria and Albania following Tito's break with Stalin.

Heda learnt of the arrests from a newspaper. All were charged with Titoism, being "cosmopolitans" and conspiring against the state. All but two were Jewish, and all were found guilty, after false confessions were extracted by torture, in one of the era's most notorious show trials. Heda saw him once more, on the eve of his execution.

After almost a year in prison, Margolius was hanged. In an interview in the 1980s Heda said, "More than 30 years have now passed and that night is still not over. It remains to this day a screen on to which my present life is projected. I measure all my happiness and all my misfortunes against it."

Heda and her son became pariahs. Denied employment and thrown out of her apartment, she eked out a living translating German, British and American authors, working under pseudonyms; she also designed dust jackets. In 1955, she married Pavel Kovály, a philosophy lecturer, and used his name to continue her work, gaining a reputation as one of the country's leading literary translators.

In 1963 the Party rehabilitated Margolius and the others. Heda was asked to describe the losses she had incurred as a result of her husband's execution. She submitted a list that included "loss of honour" and "loss of faith in the Party and in justice." She spent the rest of her life trying to clear his name, but without success.

In 1968, after the Soviet invasion she fled to Britain then emigrated to the US. She and Pavel settled in Boston; he worked as a Professor at Northeastern University while Heda became a librarian at Harvard University's Law School. They returned to Prague in 1996. Her memoir was published in 1973 as The Victors and the Vanquished, with a new translation in 1986 as Under a Cruel Star: Life in Prague, 1941-1968 and in Britain as Prague Farewell.

Heda Bloch, author: born Prague 15 September 1919; married firstly Rudolf Margolius (died 1952; one son), 1955 Pavel Kovály (died 2006); died Prague 5 December 2010.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments