Rudolf Margolius, deputy minister of foreign trade of the Czechoslovak Republic, just as Capt. Edmond Dantes, the protagonists in Alexandre Dumas historic novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” found himself imprisoned for the “crime” of knowing too much.
Reading the Washington Post obituary of Heda Margolius Kovaly, the acclaimed author of the memoir, “Under a Cruel Star,” brought back memories of an extraordinary encounter I had with her in Prague in 1952, at the height of the Stalinist purges.
Heda, the wife of Rudolf Margolius, sought me out and asked for help. Her husband, she said, was taken away by the Czech secret police. He was in prison, accused of high treason and espionage. Abandoned by friends and shunned by former colleagues of her husband, she was desperate.
She remembered me as the Prague-based, foreign correspondent for the official Hungarian news agency, M. T. I., who had interviewed her husband several times. She wondered whether I would be willing to write a report on the real reason for her husband’s imprisonment.
“Rudolf was in charge of the Czechoslovak government’s ‘dollar offensive’ economic policy,” she said. “He made trade agreements all over the world, generating huge sums of hard currency for the government.”
What wasn’t publicly known, she said, was the fact that a substantial part of the accumulated hard currency was diverted into financing the activities of “progressive forces” in the West. “My husband was certain that a number of powerful members of the Central Committee also filled their own pockets. Rudolf is the keeper of the secrets, and they want to silence him.”
She was fearless and willing to take any risk to gain freedom for her husband.
What she didn’t know was that the 1952 show trial that followed her husband’s arrest and involved Rudolf Slansky, the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, and thirteen co-defendants, was orchestrated by Moscow on Stalin’s orders. The fate of the accused has already been determined in advance.
The reason for the purge of the high-echelons of the Czechoslovak Communist Party remains obscure. Experts attribute the purge mostly to Stalin’s paranoia, but also to an effort to stamp out possible Titoist deviation in the satellite countries. Members of the so-called Slansky-conspiracy also served as handy scapegoats for the failed economic policies imposed by the Kremlin.
Margolius, a lawyer and economist, was not involved in party politics. Nevertheless, apparently for being in possession of too many secrets, his fate was sealed. After months of physical and mental coercion, he signed a false confession. He and ten co-defendants were sentenced to death. On Dec.3.1952, Margolius was executed, by hanging.
In 1963, Slansky, and the other “anti-party conspirators,” including Margolius, were judicially rehabilitated by the Czechoslovak Supreme Court. Five years later, Czechoslovak President Ludvik Svoboda awarded the Order of the Republic posthumously to Margolius.
It was of little help to his widow, who after her husband’s execution has been thrown out of their apartment and lost her job. She survived, with her young son, Ivan, by moving into a one-room apartment in the worst part of Prague, edging out a meager living. Years later she married Pavel Kovaly, an academician.
In 1968, as the Soviet troops moved into Prague to suppress the reform movement, the couple fled to the United States. Here, she became a librarian at Harvard University law school.
Heda Margolius remained a Czech patriot. Following the Velvet Revolution, she moved back to Prague in 1996. She died there last December at the age of 91, two days after the 58th anniversary of her husband’s execution.
More: Ivan Margolius, in his book “Reflections of Prague,” provides a vivid description of the Stalinist show trial and his family’s ordeal.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was
reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.