Heda Margolius Kovály, 10. 1. 1988, New York, USA

Questions to the narrator


Location New York, USA
Date 10. 1. 1988
Length 27:36

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Did many Czechs like yourself who were victims of the Nazi era feel the old society was corrupt and needed to be radically changed?

When the war was over in May 1945, people started coming back from the concentration camps and all of them, also the partisans and the freedom fighters, the people who were in any way persecuted during the Nazi occupation, were looking forward to a better life, to start life all over again. This was what kept us going throughout all these years: the idea that we’ll one day come again, and we’ll be human beings again. That we would find a home and a new life. And what we found was not what we had expected, because after six years of Nazi occupation things became very distorted. Some people felt guilty about collaborating, about dealing in the black market, about acquiring goods from Jews who were expelled and who were transported to the concentration camps. There was much, very much of a guilt and unhappiness in the country, a total disorder. And we came into a situation which for us was unbearable. We did not want this kind of society any more. We expected something much more beautiful, something we have given so much for. And I think that in a way it was not really realistic, what we wanted, but the resentment, the bitterness of what we had to suffer for, this end was overwhelming. The need for change was everywhere.

How were you and your husband swept up into the communist ideology?

It’s difficult to say that we were swept up. It was more of a slow process. I remember how we used to meet with friends of totally different political views, and just listened to the discussions. And there were several of them whom I remember very clearly, and I know that they had a very important influence upon my husband. There were two of his friends from his university studies, one of them was a cautious person who lived very comfortably throughout the war, he had been an officer in the Czechoslovak army but he never joined the resistance, and he didn’t do anything dishonest, but he really never risked anything, he just tried to survive. And the other man was a son of a labourer, a man of great integrity and a very strong character, who spent all these years in the mountains with the partisans, fighting against the Germans. And he also joined the Communist Party during some meeting in a tent with a candle, holding a gun. And he came with such self-assurance, and he talked about all these necessary changes in the society, that it swept us, this was I think the most important event.

Did you and your husband think that only the Communists could make the radical changes in society that it needed?

[laughs] Today I think that we didn’t really know what we were talking about.

At that time?

At that time we thought that communism was the only real opposite of fascism. Most of the things we have experienced in the camps were pointed to this because the Germans in the last months, in the camps, they were trying to rush to the West to be captured by the Americans. During the Prague Uprising we knew that the Americans were standing fifty miles from Prague and didn’t move, we didn’t know anything about any kind of accord that was made with the Russians. And the Russian Army liberated Prague in the last minute, when we didn’t have any more ammunition, it was very hard to fight any more, it was very critical, and all of a sudden there were the Russian tanks and the Russian soldiers with their accordions liberating us.

Was there a pro-Russian feeling in Czechoslovakia at that time?

Yes, at that time the Russians were considered our liberators and those who fought most ardently in the war and who also had so many casualties, so the feeling was very, very positive.

After the Communist takeover, how relentless was the propaganda in daily life?

It was absolutely ever-present all the time. From the morning you heard the news and you read the paper, you heard the propagandists who came all over the place, who lived with you in the same building. Usually the concierge, the janitor of the house, was also a propagandist, someone who watched over you, someone who told you where to go for the meeting. The meetings were in the streets, in the building, each street had several points where people met, some of the comrades spent a lot of time in the streets just looking at people – what they do, how they speak, their conversation in the stores, all was about politics.

How did people feel about this propaganda after a while, did they believe it?

I think that some people did. It is true that if you hear the same thing repeated all over again, and if you sometimes listen to people who you have known all your life and you trust them, then many people did believe it to a certain extent. Of course with many other people it became very unpleasant, and also because Czech people are very sceptical and they are cynical and they like to poke fun at everything. After a while this became the way of listening to the news, the reacting to it. But many people, especially the young ones, really believed all that and were very enthusiastic about it, so it was divided.

How cut off did you feel and were you in Czechoslovakia in the Stalinist period from the West?

Totally. I think that some people managed to get some news. There were people who sat at the radio all day, old people, and they might have caught something, but the broadcast was so very jammed that it was almost impossible to hear anything. And what was worse than that was that sometimes people just caught a few words and they explained them mistakenly, and they spread this news which was wrong in the end, and people concluded that this is how the West lies, that they don’t tell the truth. And I think that the isolation around 1950 was almost complete.

What damage did the Stalinist era do to personal relations?

I think that all personal relations had to take the second seat in a person’s life, because the most important thing was the party. You were supposed to love and cherish and obey the party as you would God Almighty, because it was like a religious sect. You were not supposed to have your own opinion about anything. First in your mind should always be what is good for the party, because what is good for the party is good for everybody, for the human kind. And if you don’t see that, it’s your fault, you are at fault because you don’t think properly, you don’t think right. You have to educate yourself and you have to change yourself. The Party has the supreme truth that can’t be changed. You have to change.

Was the Communist Party and Communism like a sort of religion then?

Yes, I think that the only accurate way to explain it is to compare it with a religious order. Because what it gave to people is the security they have lacked at that time, the belief they needed, the faith they needed, and also the security of being right, doing the right thing, believing in the right thing. And all our efforts were at that time to adjust to this, to make ourselves better Communists.

On the other side of the coin, was there personal fear, distrust?

I think there was a little bit of fear behind all this, because everybody knew about the events in the Soviet Union in the ‘30s, but strangely enough, for us the ‘30s in Russia seemed like a very distant past. People used to compare that to the French Revolution. They would say, well you can’t condemn democracy because of the excesses of the French Revolution in France, or you can’t condemn the Catholic Church because of the Inquisition, every history has its dark moments. That was very long ago and it’s past, and anyhow in Czechoslovakia everything is going to be different.

But when it got much worse when Stalinism, the high tide of Stalinism hit you, the show trials and so on, was there then more of an atmosphere, general atmosphere of fear?

The fear started actually already in 1950 because then there were many arrests which were not clearly explained, and for the first time I think we realised that we have given up the most important thing in life, and it was our freedom. Because we didn’t get any information of what was going on, how the state was run, who made the decisions. And all of a sudden we saw that people are being arrested, that they disappeared. And at first everybody said, well these people must have done something wrong, they were probably some enemies, they were spies, they were saboteurs. But after a while when there was someone arrested about whom you knew he was a decent honest person, the fear began to grow.

Did this fear also get inside families?

Of course, people were afraid of their own spouses and children, especially children. It was quite clear even to the smallest children in the first grade of school that they must never speak about anything that was said at home, that it were two separate worlds, your private life at home and then a life at school, that you never must repeat anything that was said at home.

Could you tell us a little bit about the cult of being working class and loyal to the party at your workplace?

At that time I worked at a publishing house where everyone was young. All the people were young, most of them students, and all of them ardent Communists. I was always embarrassed because for the first time, I am not a believer, I didn’t really share their enthusiasm, but I had to admire the zeal and the hardworking attitude they had. They would work 20 hours a day if it was necessary. And from time to time there was a session where everybody had to talk about himself and to reveal his past and background, and talk about their families and the way they were brought up. And there was really a competition to show their families in the worst possible light because that was the proletarian background which was so sought after. And I remember once, I think it was the first time because I wasn’t yet used to this, these questions were asked who was your father and your mother. And everyone had some bourgeois grandfather at least, and so people were very unhappy about it. And the last person got up and said: my father was an alcoholic and my mother was a prostitute. And we were so envious of him, and we thought, my God, this is how every proletarian should look.

Can you describe now the circumstances that led up to your own husband’s arrest?

My husband was at that time a Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade. In summer 1949 he was sent to England to conclude a treaty with Great Britain. Anyhow he had all his contacts there, all his dealings were with the West. And he was hoping for a good economic relationship with England and the West. For that matter he had many contacts with the West and was really in much danger for all that. But I didn’t realise it then, only because in 1951 there was already quite a number of people who were arrested and who disappeared, and some of them we knew were incapable of doing anything criminal. And we lived for, I especially lived for months and months in great fear, great anxiety, because I thought something is going to happen. This is like an avalanche and every day it was darker and darker. And then in January 1952 I spoke to my husband in the evening, about 10 o’clock, and he said he was still at the Ministry and he was very busy, he would come a little later. So I went to bed. And then after midnight, five men came into my apartment, brought with them my husband’s attaché case, and announced that my husband was arrested and that they were going to conduct a search of the apartment. I only later found out that my husband’s car was stopped when he came into the street, the whole street was flooded with lights and the arrest was made like a sequence in a spy movie.

What was he accused of?

I really didn’t know what he was accused of, I couldn’t get any information at all. I tried to. I was allowed to write him a letter every month, I delivered the letter by hand because I was hoping that I might find out something from the people who dealt with him, but I never did. And I never knew what he was accused of. Only after the trial started, at that time I was in a hospital, and there one day the newspaper came and there it was. It was the first time I heard of what my husband was accused of, a sabotage, espionage, treason.

You didn’t believe that?

Of course I didn’t believe it. My husband was the most honest person I have ever met in my life. He never lied, he was incapable of any kind of disguise or treason. That was ridiculous.

At his trial he confessed to these charges against him. (Yeah.) Why did he do that?

From what I heard later, he was threatened that if he didn’t cooperate, our son, our child who was a little lad at that time, would be taken to an institution and I would be put into prison, too. And I think that was the strongest argument with him. I know that all these people were treated you know very cruelly. I don’t know whether they were really tortured but it was not far from torture what they had to go through. But my husband was also four years in the concentration camps, he was in Dachau, he had been through a lot, he was not easy to break. But I think this argument –

I think the main reason why my husband gave up was that he eventually finally in the prison found out that he was wrong in believing the Communist Party. We had a conversation, we had it only a few weeks before his arrest, when I finally told him that I didn’t believe he was right in trusting the party, that I thought it was totally wrong. And he said, if you are right and if it is really all a fraud, then I have been an accomplice to a terrible crime. I have devoted my life to something that is very bad, and then I wouldn’t want to live.

Could you describe your very last meeting with your husband?

My last meeting with my husband took place on December 2nd. The trial was over. The whole trial of the 14 people took a week. And eleven of them were condemned to death, got the death penalty and the sentence was to be carried out on the 3rd of December. And on the evening of the 2nd of December two men came to my apartment, I was just thrown out of the hospital, and I was in bed, and they said, if you want to see your husband for the last time you can come with us, but if you are sick we’ll just leave. And so I asked, begged them to wait and let me get dressed and come with them. So I did, and they took me to the prison, where there were small cubicles, they put me in one of those, and asked me to wait. And after a while, a few minutes of waiting, they took me to a larger room, which was divided by a double mesh of wire, and there I waited. And then my husband came, I hadn’t seen him for almost a year. And as soon as saw him, I knew that he was resigned to his destiny, that he was not really afraid, he was very calm, he was not upset. And we started talking, I was in a very bad state of health, I was hanging on to the mesh with both hands. There were two policemen on my side and two on his. I brought pictures of my son which I wanted my husband to see, but they didn’t let me give it to him. And I asked them whether we couldn’t at least shake hands or get closer to each other, and they said no, it’s not possible, so I tried to touch his hand through the mesh but couldn’t because it was too far. And we talked about the family and the child and I said I was going to bring up our child so that he would become a good man, that he shouldn’t worry about us, that everything is going to be all right. He said that the Minister of Internal Affairs promised him to take care of us and to get me a good job, which never of course happened, on the contrary, we were persecuted afterwards. And then he told me that he was in a cell with a man who loved music as much as he did and that they learned to whistle the Dvořák Cello Concerto almost entire, by that time. And then … It was only a few minutes and then the policemen nodded at him that it’s the end of the interview, and then he very quickly said, listen, I read a good book recently, and the title was Men of Clear Conscience. And I knew of course that that was the message he wanted to give me. But I knew that he knew that I believed in him, and it was not necessary, but still it was reassuring that he felt that I can understand that. And then, when we parted, and I could see, it was I think a consolation to me that he really didn’t want to live in this world any more.

What happened to you and your son after that, after your husband was executed?

I was in very bad health at that time, I was very sick because I tried to work too hard and under very bad conditions. And I couldn’t get any treatment, which was the main thing, because I needed my health to be able to provide for the child and I just couldn’t get, the doctors were afraid to look at me. So after my husband’s execution for several weeks I was just lying in my bed in very bad condition, and then the people from the Ministry came and so forth, so everything we owned was confiscated, we were only given a bed and the child’s bed and a table and two chairs, a few plates and forks and so forth. That was all we had left, and then we were moved out of our apartment [to] a very small room in a[n] old building where there was no plumbing and there was no heating, and this was a very, very tough neighbourhood. And I could not get a job, I spent whole days walking around Prague trying to find anything where I could make a living, and always they gave me an interview, because I believe that those people really enjoyed this procedure, and after it was finished they said, yes, but you are not politically totally dependable, you are not to be trusted, and you can’t have this job. And finally I applied for a job of a charwoman in a hospital and the answer was the same, you are politically not fit to be an employee of this institution. So then I realised that I will never ever get a job. And I started my original job as an artist, as a graphic artist, so I started getting work freelance under different names, I think that it was just through the kindness of my friends that we survived the first year.

How long was it before the Party admitted that the charges against your husband were false?

In 1963 I received a letter to come to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, where I would receive some news about the trial of my husband. When I came there, I was given a piece of paper where there was printed that my husband, after the revision of his trial, he was found completely innocent and that his efforts on behalf of the economy of our country were found extremely sound. And it was concluded that if things had been done the way he suggested the country would have profited in a great way. And of course I was ranting and raving, I asked for the whole trial to be revised, or every charge to be explained and revoked, but they refused completely, that it was not possible to do, that the Party does not allow for it. Then I said, well, at least print some explanation in the paper. I have a child, I don’t want him to be looked upon as a son of a criminal, you have to publicise this. And that it’s not possible to do and we won’t do it. So everything I asked for was refused. Then I was invited to the Ministry of Finances to get some compensation for the damages I incurred. I prepared a list of the damages my son and myself suffered by the conviction and execution of my husband, and it said, loss of husband, loss of father, loss of home, loss of faith in the party, loss of possibility to be educated, and it had about ten items like that. And the man looked at it and read it, and started shouting at me, what do you think, we can’t compensate you for this. And I said, this is precisely why I did it, that no matter what you do now you will never repair what you’ve done.

Heda Margolius Kovály (1919–2010)

Heda Margolius Kovály

Czech translator and writer. At the beginning of the Nazi occupation, she married the lawyer Rudolf Margolius, with whom she was deported to the Lodz ghetto in 1941 and further to the Nazi extermination camps. It was a miracle that they both survived when she fled from the death march and he from the Dachau camp. Rudolf Margolius, who joined the Communist Party under the influence of the liberation, had a promising career in the Chief of Minister’s Office and later as Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade. In his office, he defended Czechoslovak, not Russian, interests, and was therefore arrested in January 1952 and in a show trial against the so-called anti-state conspiracy centre around Rudolf Slánský, until then the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, was sentenced to death and executed in December 1952. Heda with her young son Ivan experienced bad years as a “wife of the traitor of people”, being bullied by authorities and persecuted, and only survived owing to the help she received from the translator and philosopher Pavel Kovály, whom she married in 1955. After the Soviet occupation in August 1968, she eventually decided to leave Czechoslovakia with her whole family and went to live in the USA, where she worked in the Harvard University Library until 1996, when she returned to Prague after the death of her husband.

She translated from German, English and French authors such as Arnold Zweig, H. G. Wells, Raymond Chandler, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, Arnold Bennett, William Golding, Arthur Miller and others. Her most well-known book is her autobiography, entitled Na vlastní kůži (’68 Publishers, Toronto, 1973) which was translated into many languages.

For details, see www.margolius.co.uk