Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968

· Plunkett Lake Press
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"A story of the human spirit as its most indomitable... one of the outstanding autobiographies of the century." San Francisco Chronicle

"Once in a rare while we read a book that puts the urgencies of our time and ourselves in perspective, making us confront the darker realities of human nature... Mrs. Kovaly experienced the two supreme horrors of what Hannah Arendt called this terrible century. But her book is not just a personal memoir of inhumanity. In telling her story – simply, without self-pity – she illuminates some general truths of human behavior... Quietly, with cumulative force, it shows us how the totalitarian state feeds on the blindness and the weakness of man." Anthony Lewis, New York Times

"A wonderfully expressive writer. Although her approach is above all personal, Kovaly’s reflections on her experiences reveal a high degree of insight into politics, individual and institutional behavior, and the formation of attitudes." Christian Science Monitor

"A Jew in Czechoslovakia under the Nazis, Kovaly spent the war years in the Lodz ghetto and several concentration camps, losing her family and barely surviving herself. Returning to Prague at the end of the war, she married an old friend, a bright, enthusiastic young Jewish economist named Rudolf Margolius, who saw the country's only hope for the future in the Communist Party. Thereafter, Rudolf became deputy minister for foreign trade. For a time, the Margoliuses lived like royalty, albeit reluctantly, but then, in a replay of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, Rudolf and others, mostly of Jewish background, were arrested and hung in the infamous Slansky Trial of 1952. Kovaly's memoir of these years that end with her emigration to the West after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 are a tragic story told with aplomb, humor and tenderness. The reader alternately laughs and cries as Kovaly describes her mother being sent to death by Dr. Mengele, Czech Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald drunk at a reception, the last sight of her husband, the feverish happiness of the Prague Spring. Highly recommended." Publishers Weekly

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About the author

Heda Margolius Kovály (1919-2010) was born in Prague. Her youth was cut short by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939. In 1941, she and her family were deported to the Lodz Ghetto, then to Auschwitz. She escaped from a death march, made her way back to Prague, and took part in the uprising against the Germans in May 1945. Heda then reunited with her husband, Rudolf Margolius, who had survived Auschwitz and Dachau. After Margolius became Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade in the post-war Communist government, he was arrested and became a victim of Stalinist anti-semitic show trials. The Slansky Trials found Margolius one of eleven Jews guilty of conspiracy. After his execution in 1952, Heda, who never believed that her husband was guilty and spent her life trying to clear his name, and Ivan, her four-year-old son, were shunned by society. Heda was denied work and lodging, forced to live in poverty and to eke out a living surreptitiously editing and translating. She did not tell Ivan the truth about what happened to his father until he was sixteen years old. Her memoir of life under Stalinism, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, is dedicated to Ivan. She is the author of a novel, Innocence, and the translator of several American authors into Czech. In his book Cultural Amnesia, Clive James named Heda Margolius Kovály one of the "necessary" writers of the twentieth century. In 1968, after Soviet troops invaded Prague, mother and son fled Czechoslovakia. Heda Margolius Kovály settled in Boston, Massachusetts where she worked at the Harvard Law School library and lived with her second husband, Pavel Kovály. In 1996, they returned to Prague where Heda died in 2010.

Born in Prague in 1947, Helen Epstein grew up in New York City, where she graduated from Hunter College High School in 1965. She studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and became a journalist after the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia of 1968 when her personal account was published in the Jerusalem Post. She became a university correspondent for that newspaper while still an undergraduate. Subsequently, she studied at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and began freelancing for diverse publications including the New York Times.

Her profiles of legendary musicians such as Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein and Yo-Yo Ma are collected in Music Talks that, like Children of the Holocaust and Where She Came From, has been translated into several other languages. She herself is the translator of Heda Kovály's Under A Cruel Star and Vlasta Schönová's Acting in Terezín. Her biographies of Joseph Papp and Tina Packer grew out of her journalistic work. She has an active speaking career and has lectured at a wide variety of venues in Europe, and North and South America. She blogs for The Arts Fuse, a New England cultural web site.

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