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Under a Cruel Star, is an autobiography written by Heda Kovaly, the majority taking place during the 1950s and 1960s. Kovaly recounts her life shortly before, during, and after the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, and the subsequent turmoil that arose from living under a communist-totalitarian rule. Through her writing, Kovaly gives the reader a look into the appalling conditions and conflicts that she faced after World War Two, and the intense, largely individual struggle it took to simply survive.
Kovaly’s work conveys a tortured experience of communism that many others in Czechoslovakia did not bear witness to and learned of much too late.
From her narration readers are made to understand that Anti-Semitism; although not at the level present before and during World War Two, still influenced Czechoslovakian society a great deal and was partly to blame for arguably the worst experience of Kovaly’s entire life; the death of her husband. Throughout her memoir there is an ever-present theme of ignorance; ignorance, innocent in nature from Kovaly’s concentration camp gaoler; na?ve ignorance from Kovaly’s husband when accepting his job from the Communist government; as well as the combination of fear and ignorance that the Czechoslovakian party largely relied on in order to gain power after the war.
As the obviously central character in her memoir, Kovaly is at the forefront of all occurring major events. She portrays herself as being for the most part aware of the ever-present threats created by communists in a way that separates herself from those that are ignorant of these threats and choose to remain oblivious to them.
It is my belief that it was Kovaly’s goal to recount the events that many others did not experience, in order to educate the reader on the dangers of ignorance and how fear, as well as a desire for a quiet life free of conflict can be used by a totalitarian government resulting in dire consequences. This essay will analyze the multiple ignorance-based hardships that Heda Kovaly endured during and after the war, which so dramatically shaped her life and character, giving her the courage and will to survive.
The memoir begins with a recollection of the early beginnings of the deportation of Jews from Prague in the fall of 1941. Quite abruptly the reader is faced with the chaos of thousands of Jews being deported to a ghetto where many would die, and where all would suffer. Kovaly writes that no one knew where there were going and that they did not conceive that they would be heading towards life in the Lodz concentration camp stating; “we had no idea of our destination. The order was to report to the Exposition Hall, to bring food for several days and essential baggage. No more”. As a citizen of the present day, well educated on what is to occur, the reader is confronted with the disbelief that so many people would willingly travel to their own deaths and suffering. No one can blame them for obliging the Nazis and not running; the truth to come was simply so outlandish and despicable that many could not likely conceive of what was to happen. Very early on Kovaly makes this point in order to address the Jewish populations’ ignorance that was so carefully nurtured by the Nazis. Had the Nazis not so perfectly hidden evidence of their evil they never would have managed to so expertly round up the Jewish populace. That being said, it was not only the Jews that were deceived. Early in the war the majority of those not affiliated with the Nazis were also ignorant to the plight of the Jewish people. Kovaly writes about the time the labour camp boss, feeling as though something was amiss, asked her to tell him what was going on. Kovaly described to him the horror and suffering she had witnessed during her time in the concentration camps, detailed the killing and disease that took place. After she had finished telling the boss what she had seen and got up to leave Kovaly writes; “he remained sitting, hunched into himself, his head in his palms”. Kovaly later goes on to say that she truly believes that man didn’t know and only thought she and the other prisoners were convicts. The way in which Kovaly describes the man after hearing the truth makes me also believe he knew nothing. The word “hunched” conveys a powerful reaction and the intense visual of the man in tortured disbelief serves to transmit the idea that ignorance can affect a wide and diverse amount of people. I believe that Kovaly purposely recounts these memories early on in order to first; shock the reader and draw out an emotional response, and secondly; to give the reader an understanding of just how dangerous ignorance can be when controlled by an organized and powerful regime. This recounting of her experience travelling to the Lodz concentration camp as well as her summary of life in the ghetto is also used by Kovaly to highlight how those with similar experiences were taken advantage of after the war ended, and the communist party of Czechoslovakia gained power.
After the liberation of Prague from the Nazis, the Red Army began to work behind the scenes in an attempt to convince the general public to back the Czechoslovakian Communist party. Since the Nazis had portrayed the Soviet Union as their greatest enemy, the people of Czechoslovakia took that to mean that Communism was the opposite of Nazism, therefore an ideology worthy of their support. Kovaly however, did not feel so comfortable after reading the Communist propaganda writing; “I took a dislike to the word masses which jumped out at me from every pamphlet I read. Whenever I saw or heard it, I had a vision of an endless flock of sheep, an undulating sea of bent backs and hung heads and the monotonous movement of chewing jowls”. The phrasing of these sentences is very interesting. It is obvious that Kovaly’s “vision” is a metaphor for the Czechoslovakian populace being blindly led in whatever direction the would-be Shepard, or in this context the Communist party wished them to. Additionally, the use of the words “chewing jowls” suggests that a large amount of the population would grow fat and lazy, happy to consume the propaganda the government would feed to them. It is my opinion that Kovaly also includes the words “endless” and “bent backs”, to convey to the reader that the communist-totalitarian government would always have an infinite supply of people living in ignorance to take advantage of. Unfortunately, while Kovaly was skeptical of Communism, her husband Rudolph was not. A few months after the spring in 1948 Rudolph Margolius was offered the position of cabinet chief in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. In a December article from the New York Times, William Grimes writes that Rudolph “rose to become a deputy minister of foreign trade”. However, this is not wholly true. After at first turning down the job due to satisfaction with his current occupation, Rudolph was notified that his refusal had been rejected leaving him only two options; accept the job or resign from the party resulting in him; “turning his back on everything he believed in”. Only a few months earlier the previous Minister of Foreign Trade, Jan Masaryk had been found dead beneath the window of the Department of Foreign Affairs building. The Communist government had not released the autopsy to the public and deemed it a suicide. While many that ran in the same social circles as Masaryk said he struggled with depression, his death was still very suspicious and thought to be related to the Communist party gaining power. Kovaly pleaded with her husband explaining that he would only be a scapegoat and would get no recognition for his efforts. Rudolph replied; “I don’t care about recognition. Besides, it’s clear I’ll only be there for the interim”. It is likely that the Communist government had a hand in the previous Minister of Foreign Trade’s death and was due to some complication Masaryk represented to their plans. Not even half a year after gaining power the Communist government was not afraid to throw their weight around and intimidate to accomplish its goals. Masaryk’s death was the first red flag; the rejection of Rudolph’s refusal the second. Previously Kovaly had only written of the ignorance of those unexperienced with totalitarian regimes. This is one of the first times someone who had also suffered the Nazis previous humiliation is seen to be ignorant of the impending disaster. Here Kovaly is seen to be the voice of reason, while Rudolph plays the part of the na?ve fool. Kovaly, having learned from her past, is skeptical of the party’s promises and actions. Rudolph however, is steadfast in his belief that if he carefully continues with his work nothing bad will befall his family. This is one of the main parts of Kovaly’s message about the dangers of ignorance. Even after his experience during World War 2, Rudolph was ignorant in his understanding of the dangers the Communist Party of Czechoslovakian government posed. It is not sensical to simply believe that those in power have your best interests at heart. If one is ignorant of the potential threat that organized power poses, then they are doomed to be taken advantage of.
After the arrest of her husband Rudolf and his subsequent expulsion from the party, Kovaly was treated with less dignity and respect than one would have for a dog. The vast majority of the public (save for a few friends) never questioned that Rudolph could be innocent. Kovaly describes the hatred that was manifested by lies writing; “Until then, the people on our street had simply ignored or avoided me; now a wave of hatred began to swell. Women particularly would stop and stare at me with venom, whispering among themselves as I walked by. Sometimes a comrade concierge would spit into the sidewalk after I passed her door, loudly, making sure I noticed”. To think that these people new the Margolius family for years but did not hesitate to question the governments ruling is horrifying. The psychological damage that it would cause is only imaginable, made even worse knowing that it was brought on by ignorance. There were of course those that were not ignorant, having at the very least some small semblance of doubt over the party’s accusations. This behaviour, while indeed cowardly can be understood. These people were under a communist-totalitarian rule where any and all dissident was considered criminal. They wished to keep their family and themselves fed and safe. Kovaly writes; “It is not hard for a totalitarian regime to keep people ignorant. Once you relinquish your freedom for the sake of an understood necessity, for Party discipline, for conformity with the regime, for the greatness and glory of the Fatherland, or for any of the substitutes that are so convincingly offered, you cede your claim to the truth”. Kovaly was a part of the totalitarian system and understood how it operated. Once you are in its grip it relies on you continuing to live your life in ignorance. Kovaly writes of “releasing your freedom”. This can be construed to mean freedom of thought, freedom of action, and freedom of speech. The party would lie and manipulate, always witling down one’s morals until they were a shadow of the vibrant beings they once were. The communist-totalitarian government also ran multiple programs meant to supress civil society, allowing for an Orwellian in nature government to reaffirm its grasp over its people. This “Sovietization” as Jarausch calls it forced citizens to “channel their activities solely through party organizations”, leaving little room for rebellion of any size. It is therefore understandable that many would be ignorant as well as too afraid to stand up for Kovaly, even knowing that her husband was innocent.
Throughout Kovaly’s life, ignorance was the root cause of all her suffering. Whilst the hate and evil wielded by the Nazis and Communist Party of Czechoslovakia can surely be blamed for setting events in motion, things never would have progressed to the point they did without the manipulation of the peoples’ ignorance. Through her writing Kovaly painstakingly shows how so many horrible experiences in her life could have been avoided, had people only questioned the things going on around them. Without the careful tending of ignorance by the two respective totalitarian governments; Kovaly’s gaoler would surely have helped the prisoners escape, her husband would not have been murdered, and she would not have been so poorly treated by her neighbors. It is my belief that it was Kovaly’s goal to express her message in the hopes that readers would further spread their knowledge on the dangers of ignorance, making the world a safer place.
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