A reader recently responded to my column on the tragic fate of Rudolf Margolius, the deputy minister of foreign trade of the Czechoslovak Republic.
In the 1950s during the Stalinist purges, Margolius was falsely accused of high treason and espionage, sentenced to death, and hanged. Although years later he was judicially rehabilitated and posthumously awarded the Order of the Republic, his wife and son suffered grievously under the Communist regime.
My column was limited to depicting a human tragedy. The reader responding to it, however, saw it in broader terms: “Frank Shatz’s firsthand reports of major events in Europe and his ability to relate the stories connecting various public figures…brings a complicated, confusing past alive for us and weaves seemingly disparate pieces together so we can begin to understand how various actions through the years impact us now.”
A similar urge may have compelled Ivan Margolius, the son of Rudolf and Heda, now a noted architect and writer living in England, to pen his book, “Reflections of Prague: journeys through the 20th century.”
He fuses investigative reporting and firsthand knowledge of the political landscape in Communist Czechoslovakia with a compelling literary flair. A critic in The Times Literary Supplement credits Margolius with making his parents “icons, collectively representing the human achievements and suffering of the troubled twentieth century.”
In the words of a review on Amazon’s webpage, “’Reflections of Prague’ is a story of how a Czech family become embroiled in the most tragic and tumultuous episodes of the twentieth century. Through their eyes we see the history of their beloved Prague, a unique European city, and the wider, political forces that tear their lives apart.”
I asked Margolius how he evaluates now, from the perspective of some 60 years, the tragedy that engulfed the once democratic Czechoslovakia and his own family.
“My small country was used as a pawn in the political game that resulted in the notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler,” he3 said. “This affected many people, including my father. He turned his belief toward the Soviet Union as a savior of the country. Unfortunately, he had no worldwide view and did not compare his views with others until too late.”
His lessons learned are to build a strong democracy, question everything, collect data from all sides, and do not believe what politicians or the media is telling you.
“Read, listen, observe and love life. Fight for truth and justice, never give up,” he said. “Educate others about what happened in the past and learn to see things from other’s point of view.”
His outlook was apparently shaped by his search in the archives of the now-democratic Czech Republic. There he learned about the paranoid obsession of Stalin to find enemies everywhere, and about the involvement of the Communist leadership of Czechoslovakia, in the murders and torture carried out in the name of the party.
“Long after 1953, and the death of Stalin, it was in their interest to continue suppressing the freedom of the population and maintaining silence about their crimes,” he writes in his book.
I asked Margolius whether the ordeal his family went through made him more resilient about human nature.
“I am more cynical,” he said. “You have to be to be able to survive. And you have to learn to question everything and taking nothing for granted.”
According to Josef Skvorecky, a renowned Czech writer, “Reflections of Prague,” is a remarkable book. “This archetypical story of the twentieth century is intertwined with the history of the Czechs, of Prague, samples of exquisite poetry, of tragic lives, of horrors, of moments of beauty and testimonies of love – all against the background of man’s inhumanity.”
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.