Hello, Europeanists! This is our second video for Week 9, and our subject today is Heda Margolius Kovaly’s memoir Under a Cruel Star. Our teaching assistant is Maggie. I don’t have any new announcements for you, except to say: Keep up the good work!
The historical background information I gave you in the previous video pretty much covers the context for this memoir. The sections I’ve assigned you covers the period of Czechoslovak history from the end of WWII until the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. Something important I neglected to mention is that the period of liberalization in 1968 is known as Prague Spring. This period began in January 1968, when Alexander Dubček replaced the old hardliner Antonin Novotny as leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and state, and lasted until August 1968, when the Soviets invaded and ousted him. The word “Spring” here acts as a metaphor for liberalization, just as “Thaw” does when we talk about the Khrushchev Thaw in the Soviet Union.
I’d also like to give you some biographical information about our memoirist, Heda Margolius Kovaly. She had a truly remarkable life. She was born in 1919, just after the end of WWI. At that time, Czechoslovakia was a new country, and as you may remember, it had the strongest and most long-lasting commitment to liberal democracy of any of the new countries that emerged from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kovaly’s family were proud supporters of Czechoslovak democracy. They were also Jews, and they suffered greatly under Nazi occupation. In 1941, Heda, her parents, and her husband Rudolf Margolius, were deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland, along with the rest of the Jewish population of Prague. In 1944, they were deported again to Auschwitz, where the rest of her family was killed. Heda and Rudolf were separated, but remarkably, they both survived, and they found each other again in Prague after the war had ended.
As you read in the memoir, Rudolf became a leading official in the postwar communist government of People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia. In 1952, he was arrested in connection with the Slánsky Trial, which was a Stalinist purge. Rudolf was sentenced to death as an “enemy of the people” and executed. These events had serious consequences for Heda and their young son Ivan. They were considered guilty by association, and while Heda was not arrested, she was shunned and had a hard time finding work and friendship for the next decade.
Heda remained in Prague and managed to survive. In 1955, she married her friend Pavel Kovaly, and together they raised Ivan. As you read, Rudolf Margolius and the others sentenced in the Slánsky Trial were finally rehabilitated in 1963. But Heda was not satisfied with the way things were handled, and her experience with the rehabilitation process only confirmed her anger at the government. When Dubček came to power in 1968, Heda participated enthusiastically in Prague Spring. But after the Warsaw Pact invasion, she decided to leave the country. She wrote this memoir five years later, while living in the United States.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. In the first chapter that I assigned you (pp. 52-66), Kovaly describes the political debates that went on among Czech citizens after the war. As she recounts, communism was genuinely popular in this moment. What made it so appealing to so many people? What did it offer that liberal democracy did not? How did the experiences of the interwar period and of the war itself incline people to choose communism over liberal democracy? How does this fit with Mazower’s account in chapter 8 of Dark Continent? If you were in Heda and Rudolf’s shoes, do you think you would have been convinced?
2. Kovaly considers herself relatively apolitical. But she chooses to join the Communist Party after witnessing a debate between her friends Zdenek and Franta. Make a close reading of her account of this debate on pp. 57-58. Compare her political awakening and political decision-making to Anna Litveiko during the Russian Revolutions? Do you think personalities are more persuasive than political theories in most cases? Does this happen in American politics, too?
3. Kovaly also notes that Jews were more inclined to adopt communism than others. How did the experience of surviving the concentration camps influence their thinking? How would Primo Levi respond to her account of this on pp. 60-61?
4. In the second section I assigned you (pp. 93-110), Kovaly discusses what it was like to live behind the “Iron Curtain” in the early 1950s. How did Czech citizens understand the Cold War? What was their impression of the West? How did Cold War rhetoric make them more willing to accept the growing Stalinism of their government? If we consider that the West was giving its citizens a similarly skewed impression of the Eastern Bloc, how does her account add a new dimension to our understanding of the ideological side of the Cold War?
5. As Stalinism reaches a fever pitch, Heda and Rudolf begin to argue frequently. She tries to convince him to leave his job in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Even though he acknowledges that things are going crazy, he refuses to quit. Make a close reading of their exchange on pp. 103-104. Can you unpack both Heda’s and Rudolf’s perspectives? Can you sympathize with each of them? What would you do, if you were in Rudolf’s place?
6. On pp. 164-166, Kovaly describes the effects of de-Stalinization in Czechoslovakia. How would you characterize this, in your own words? In what ways was de-Stalinization a success, and in what ways was it a failure? What does she mean when she says that “The country, which had just begun to recover from the paralysis of fear, sank into a morass of unspoken guilt and shame”? (Kovaly, 165) How might the revelations of de-Stalinization be as upsetting as the Stalinism that preceded them? How can a society recover from this kind of trauma?
7. In 1963, after Rudolf and the other victims of the Slánsky Trial were finally rehabilitated, Kovaly tells her son Ivan the full story of his father’s life and death. She recounts that some friends had urged her to tell him sooner, but she wanted to protect him from it for as long as possible. Do you think she made the right decision? What are the consequences of a society in which families keep such secrets?
8. Kovaly’s account of her meetings at the Central Committee and the Ministry of Justice on pp. 169-177 are fun to read. She really lets them have a piece of her mind! But she does so at great risk to herself, and as one of the officials tells her, she is the only wife of a Slánsky Trial victim who behaves this way. Consider her experiences; why do you think she is able to be so bold? Was it wise or foolish of her to take the risk? What do these exchanges reveal about the complications and the limits of de-Stalinization?
9. Prague Spring gives Kovaly a renewed hope in her nation. She is particularly impressed with the younger generation, who prove they are able to think for themselves. When Dubček holds negotiations with Brezhnev in July, many people, including Kovaly, sign a declaration in support of Dubček’s vision of “socialism with a human face.” How can we make sense of the continued popularity of socialism when the majority had turned away from Soviet-style communism? How can we understand this in the context of Czechoslovak citizens’ experiences in the 20th century?
10. Kovaly is very proud of Czechoslovak citizens’ resistance during the Warsaw Pact invasion. It seems to renew her faith even more than their behavior during Prague Spring. At the start of the invasion, Soviet forces kidnapped Dubček, and as Kovaly recounts, he is forced to give a speech on the radio renouncing his reforms. Later that day, she sees a sign: “Dearest Dubček, we understand.” (Kovaly, 191). Why do you think Czechoslovak citizens forgive Dubček? Considering Kovaly’s renewed faith in the people, why do you think she decides to leave?