Oral history is a stark dose of realism

In today’s political climate of rising extremist ideologies and nationalist tendencies, a new book, “Hitler, Stalin and I,” is an oral history that examines persecutions rooted in strong political rhetoric of exclusion. The story is told by a Czech author and Holocaust survivor, Heda Margolius Kovaly.

According to a statement by Doppelhouse Press, it is a timely release of the book. At the 50th year anniversary of the uprising against the Soviet Union’s domination of post-WWII Czechoslovakia, which became known as the Prague Spring, and 65 years after the infamous Stalin-influenced Slansky Trial, which scapegoated high-ranking Jewish officials of the Communist Party, “Hitler, Stalin and I,” shares the remarkable life of a woman who was witness to the terrors of the 20th century.

The book is based on interviews with award-winning Czech filmmaker Helena Trestikova. Kovaly recounts her family’s history in prewar, democratic Czechoslovakia, their deportation by the Nazis to the Lodz, Poland, ghetto where from 1941 to 1944 they were used as slave laborers on starvation diet. From there, they were shipped to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

Miraculously, Kovaly survived, and while on a death march during the last phase of the war in Eastern Europe, she escaped.

Returning to a Prague still occupied by the Nazis, she failed to find sanctuary among former friends. Nevertheless, she managed to hide out and participate in the liberation of Prague. A short time later, she and her husband, Rudolf Margolius, also a survivor of Auschwitz, were reunited.

Jan Hofirek, a Czech literary critic, evaluated the oral history this way: “This work stands out as one of the best examples of memoir literature. ... The story is so engrossing and filled with such immediacy and realism that the narrator, speaking from the soul, instantly wins the hearts of readers. ... Stories of people with admirable fortitude struggling even in the most hopeless situations with a cruel fate will always find their audience.”

This is what Trestikova, had to say: “Heda had an enormous talent for expressing herself. She spoke with precision and was descriptive and witty in places. I admired her attitude and composure, even after she had such extremely difficult experiences.”

Just how extreme those experiences were, I reported in a 2011 Gazette column. She died at age 91 in Prague, two days after the 58th anniversary of her husband’s execution by the Communist regime.

Rudolf Margolius, deputy minister of foreign trade, was in charge of the “dollar offensive” economic policy. He made trade agreements all over the world, generating huge sums of hard currency for the government. But he got trapped in Stalin’s purge of the high echelons of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He was forced to confess to nonexisting crimes and sentenced to death.

While already under arrest, but before the trial, Kovaly sought me out and asked for help. She remembered me as the Prague-based foreign correspondent for the official Hungarian news agency. I had interviewed her husband several times. She wanted me to write a report on the real reason for her husband’s imprisonment. But Margolious’ fate was already sealed.

Kovaly’s, memoir, “Under a Cruel Star,” was a bestseller and translated into 12 languages. “This is a story of the human spirit at its most indomitable. ... one of the outstanding autobiographies of the century,” wrote the 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,” wrote Anthony Lewis of The New York Times.

Now, Heda Margolius Kovaly, in her oral history, translated by her son, Ivan, into English, gives a panoramic view of life-long survival in the face of despair and violence, while retaining optimism and faith in the better angels of human nature.

Shatz, is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com

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