Heda Kovaly’s Under a Cruel Star

        Under A Cruel Star by Heda Kovaly : An Analysis and Review

Heda Kovaly, full name Heda Margolious Kovali wrote Under a Cruel Star to record her story of survival during the holocaust. The novel tells a grim tale of the communist rule in Checkoslovakia during the 1950s and 1960s. Most important are its narrative and style. Laconic and still penetrative, the novel records the ghastly experiences of World War II. Kovaly explores the side of communism she experienced and with her, she highlights the pains of several others that shared her traumatic experiences. Life under a totalitarian rule can be appalling and suffocating. Kovaly’s memoir is thought provoking. She narrates the sufferings she faced under the communist dictatorship and how the government inflicted atrocities upon people to calm any form of dissent from any corner. While the communist motto was equality, it was never clear what kind of equality the communists were trying to achieve. The level of equality they talked about was nothing more than an illusion.

Czechoslovakia was largely uneducated where most people were peasants. To bring complete equality, the elites were to be brought down and the level of the peasants raised.  While communists looked like pursuing a noble goal, the problem was with the methods they were using. Kovaly’s book highlights the ugly side of communism. In her memoir she calls communism a destructive illusion. The way communists envisioned equality could destroy the social system. Cent percent equality could not be achieved unless they chopped heads. Kovaly writes, “If it (communism) can only function when the leadership is made up of geniuses and all the people are one hundred percent honest and infallible, then it’s a bad system. It might work in heaven but it’s a foolish and destructive illusion for this world”.

Communism is basically a flawed idea and it is also the reason communist regimes have been hated so much. This flaw caused the  fall of communism. Kovaly’s husband was arrested with 13 other government officials in 1962. His name was Rudolf Margolius. The arrested officials also included the former general secretary Rudolf Slansky. Charges of conspiracy were pressed against them. Kovaly’s husband was executed in December, 1952. She has maintained a skeptical view of communism. Kevin McDermott has written regarding the trials and arrests of Slansky and team in his article “Polyphony of voices”. In his article, he also notes the people’s reactions as well as the communist reaction. Slansky was leading a team that had conspired against the communist state . The trial was repudiated in 1963 and the remaining accused were exonerated.  They were politically rehabilitated in 1963. Kevin McDermott discusses the depth and breadth of Czech Stalinist repression in his article. He explores the communist regime from several angles and how it affected lives in that era.

Liberty was seized and people did not know which side to be with. Kovaly notes “People no longer aspired towards things but away from them… they tried not to be seen anywhere, not to talk to anyone, not to attract any attention. Their greatest satisfaction would be that nothing happened”. Since popular opinion and open debate are completely suppressed in such regimes, it is also difficult to draw a complete picture of popular reaction to the communist rule.

Kevin McDermott has noted it in his article pointing out that the communists try to shape social discourse as per their ideological preferences. “If, for the purpose of building a new society, it is necessary to give up my freedom for a time, to subsume something I cherish to a cause in which I strongly believe, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

…”Since we did survive, we want to dedicate what is left of our lives to the future” Kovaly writes.

She kept fighting for the sake of freedom even after having escaped the death camp.  She knew it was not possible unless a new government was erected. Kevin McDermott has deeply focused on the popular opinion of the era in his article highlighting how assessing the popular opinion in the era could be a difficult task. First of all the sources through which it could be addressed could be manipulated, deeply flawed and therefore unreliable. Any of the available resources does not record the views of a very large part of the population. A major part of the population never got the opportunity to express its opinion for open dissent in communist rule could be fatal. The communists wanted everyone to sing in their tune. So, the resources from which popular reaction to the Slansky affair could be understood show him in a poor light. Only hatred and criticism against Slansky is recorded in these sources. Apart from a few minor suspicions and uncertainties there is nothing major that can be considered believable. However, a closer scrutiny has brought out that a major part of the population disbelieved what Slansky had been accused of. Still, if sympathy for the accused was rare then it is understandable that the level of suppression was very high. Kewin cites Jewish decimation after and during World War II as examples.

Kevin’s article at several point criticizes the actions of communist government in a straightforward and open manner. Kovaly’s outrage at the communist dictatorship is evident at several stages throughout her book.  While she has mostly written about the things she witnessed, the book also deals with many other burning facts in a thought provoking manner.  Communism is hailed as an ideal but its morbidity cannot and must not be ignored. To highlight it Kovaly explores the mindset of the survivors. She and the others who had survived were shocked to see that the things that belonged to them once had been turned to ash by the communists. Kevin also explores the level of Czech Stalinist terror and if it led to any form of dissent. It is amazing that despite all the suppression dissenting voices were raised.

Despite the mass arrests, independent thinking could never be killed. A section of the society was successful at articulating its opinion against the regime and its suppression. Like Kovaly, Kevin too has laid emphasis upon the brutality of the Nazis during 1938 and 1939 and the sufferings of the Czech society. Several scholars have seen the Slansky affair from several angles. It was an important episode that verified the suppression of popular will by the communists. Kevin highlights how Slansky was made a scapegoat. His and Kovaly’s husband’s murders show that the communists were ready to impose brutal punishment upon those who tried to differ. Kovaly’s memoir vividly describes how suffocating the conditions were and the level of discrimination she had to face while fighting against the communist regime.

A “Polyphony of Voices“? Czech Popular Opinion and the Slánský Affair Kevin McDermott

Under A Cruel Star : A Life In Prague – Heda Kovaly