Heda Margolius Kovály and Helena Třeštíková
Translated by Ivan Margolius
Heda Margolius Kovály (1919–2010) was a renowned Czech writer and translator born to Jewish parents. Her best-selling memoir, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941–1968 has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Her crime novel Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street—based on her own experiences living under Stalinist oppression—was named an NPR Best Book in 2015.
In the tradition of Studs Terkel, Hitler, Stalin and I is an oral history of a renowned Czech author, whose optimism and faith in people survived grueling experiences under authoritarian regimes. Based on interviews with award-winning filmmaker Helena Třeštíková, Kovály recounts her family history in Czechoslovakia, starving in the deprivations of Łodź Ghetto, how she miraculously left Auschwitz, fled from a death march, failed to find sanctuary amongst former friends in Prague as a concentration camp escapee, and participated in the liberation of Prague. Later under Communist rule, she suffered extreme social isolation as a pariah after her first husband Rudolf Margolius was unjustly accused in the infamous Slánský Trial and executed for treason. Remarkably, Kovály, exiled in the United States after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, only had love for her country and continued to believe in its people. She returned to Prague in 1996.
[Třeštíková’s] interview and chilling newsreel footage of atrocities bring Margolius-Kovály’s story to life: Her combination of determination and luck renders her almost matter-of-factly told tale extraordinary. […] In Margolius-Kovály (who penned the 1997 memoir Under a Cruel Star: Life in Prague 1941–1968), she’s found a composed, eloquent yet spunky subject whose quietly upbeat nature is inspirational and infectious.
– Eddie Cockrell, Variety
Based on an interview with the late writer and memoirist Heda Margolius Kovály and the basis for a film shown on Czech television, this book stands out as one of the best examples of memoir literature. […] It has extraordinary momentum, reads in ‘one sitting’ and, were it not a depiction of real life events, could be described as a suspense thriller. […] 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.
– Jan Hofírek, An Exceptional Life Wandering Through the Century of Horrors, Kniha.cz
A story written by life itself. […] After all the hardships, Ms. Kovály remained someone with an open mind and many truths echo in her life story. The book is difficult to tear yourself away from until you finish the last page. This emotionally charged story, yet realistic and without embellishment, will not leave you in peace.
– Kamila Pětrašová, Kultura 21
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. Nazism and Communism afflicted Heda’s life directly with maximum intensity. Nevertheless, she remained an optimist.
– From the Introduction by Helena Třeštíková
PRAISE FOR KOVALY’S INNOCENCE
A luminous testament from a dark time, Innocence is at once a clever hommage to Raymond Chandler, and a portrait of a city – Prague – caught and held fast in a state of Kafkaesque paranoia. Only a great survivor could have written such a book.
– John Banville
Double lives, secrets, informers, microdots, and above all, lies . . . Set in post-war Prague, a repressive political maze, Innocence is a must-read, a psychological drama played out in crystal prose. Not only did Heda Margolius Kovály write an emotionally wrenching tale, she lived it during the 1950s Communist state.
– Cara Black
Innocence is an extraordinary novel. […] In 1985, Kovály produced a remarkable work of art with the intrigue of a spy puzzle, the irony of a political fable, the shrewdness of a novel of manners, and the toughness of a hard-boiled murder mystery. […] Just as few will anticipate the many surprises and artful turns of Innocence, a book sure to dazzle and please a great many readers.
– Tom Nolan, The Best New Mysteries, The Wall Street Journal
Kovály’s skills as a mystery writer shines, as she uses suspense, hints, and suggestions to literally play with the reader’s mind. […] Innocence is an excellent novel for readers who are up for a challenging, intelligent, and complex story – one that paints a masterful picture of a bleak, Kafkaesque, and highly intriguing time, place, and cast of characters.
– The New York Journal of Books
Although not out of love for Hegel, Heda Margolius Kovály makes a very Hegelian point: actions, as Hegel tells us in the section on Antigone in Phenomenology of Spirit – even seemingly small, meaningless actions – always reach beyond their intent; and the impossibility of foreseeing how the consequences will ripple outwards does not absolve us of guilt. As for innocence, the woman who went to hell twice wants her readers to know that there is no such thing.
– The Times Literary Supplement
Capturing the fear and oppression of living in a police state, this dark novel, reflective of its time and written by a writer who lived her material, will enthrall noir enthusiasts and readers of literary historical fiction.
– Library Journal
Previously unpublished in English, this mystery by the late Czech translator and author of the memoir Under a Cruel Star vividly depicts Communist-oppressed 1950s Prague. […] That Kovály’s first husband was unjustly executed by the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1952 gives her narrative of double lives and betrayal a painful veracity.
– Publishers Weekly
Heda Margolius Kovály is the author of several books including the acclaimed memoir Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968 (Holmes & Meier, 1997) and the mystery thriller Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street (Soho Press, 2015).
Helena Třeštíková has made over fifty documentary films. The film Hitler, Stalin and I, based on her interview with Heda Margolius Kovály, was first shown on Czech television in 2001 and subsequently received the Festival Award Special Commendation at the 2002 Japan Film Festival; the ELSA award for the best Czech TV documentary film by the Czech Film and Television Academy in 2002, and the Gold Kingfisher award for the best documentary film at the Festival of Czech Films, Plzen in 2003.
Ivan Margolius is the son of Rudolf and Heda Margolius. He is an architect, translator and author of memoirs, books and articles on art, architecture, engineering, design and automobile history.