“Hitler, Stalin and I: An Oral History” by Heda Margolius Kovaly— A Historical Memoir

Kovaly, Heda Margolius. “Hitler, Stalin and I: An Oral History”,DoppelHouse Press, 2018.

A Historical Memoir

Amos Lassen

 Heda Margolius Kovály (1919-2010) was a famed Czech writer and translator. Her bestselling memoir, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968 has been translated into more than a dozen languages and the crime novel she wrote “Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street’ is based on her own experiences living under the oppressed regime of Stalin and was named an NPR Best Book in 2015.

“Hitler, Stalin and I” is based on interviews between Kovály and award-winning filmmaker Helena Treštíková. We read about Kovály’s family history in Czechoslovakia, the deprivations of Lodz Ghetto and how she miraculously left Auschwitz, fleeing from a death march. She was unable to find sanctuary amongst former friends in Prague as a concentration camp escapee, and participated in the liberation of Prague. Later under Communist rule, she was isolated socially and considered a pariah after her first husband Rudolf Margolius was unjustly accused of and executed for treason. After the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, she was exiled to America but still had love for her country and continued to believe in its people. She returned to Prague in 1996.

Kovaly expressed herself beautifully and maintained composure, even after she had such extremely difficult experiences. Nazism and Communism greatly affected her life but she always remained optimistic.

January 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the uprising that ended Soviet Union power post-WWII in Czechoslovakia and became known as the Prague Spring. November 2017 marked the 65 years after the infamous Stalin-influenced Slánský Trial that was intended to antagonize and execute Jewish leaders of the Communist Party in what was then Czechoslovakia. Kovaly was witness to both of these events. Her new oral history looks at persecutions that were rooted in strong political rhetoric of exclusion. Her husband Rudolf Margolius was unjustly accused of partaking in a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the ruling Communist Party in the infamous Slánský Trial and executed. Though Margolius and the other defendants who were executed in the trial were posthumously exonerated, subsequent democratically elected governments have never released a formal apology or official declaration of innocence for the men, demonstrating a common reluctance to see the misuse of power.

Despite being isolated socially for her husband’s harrowing fate and exiled in the United States after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, Kovály remained an optimist. I know there is a bit of reluctance to read stories like this since we have been so filled with them but this is unique in that it is written by a woman and is a different slant on the Holocaust.

There is a wealth of information here about the Holocaust and crimes committed by Czechoslovakia’s communist regime and we also get a look at Czechoslovakia’s First Republic.

Kovaly’s story is engrossing, immediate and real. Kovaly speaks from within, from her soul and pulls us into her life. I actually read the book in one sitting because I did not feel I could or wanted to stop. Prepare yourselves for an emotional read.