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WORLD FOCUS: A Kafkaesque tale

July 8, 2011
In two previous columns, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (Feb. 18. 2011) and “Reflection on Prague” (Mar. 4. 2011) I have described the tragic fate of Rudolf and Heda Margolius.

Their stories encapsulate the essence of events that have marked the life of so many people behind the Iron Curtain.

Margolius was deputy minister of foreign trade of the Czechoslovak Republic. He negotiated trade agreements all over the world, generating huge sums of hard currency for the government. But he found himself suddenly imprisoned, accused of high treason and espionage. He was subsequently sentenced to death, and executed, following the 1952 show trial orchestrated by Moscow on Stalin’s orders.

His wife, Heda, had been thrown out of their apartment and lost her job. She survived with her young son, Ivan, in a shabby, one-room living-space, eking out a meager living.

In 1963, Margolius and the other “anti-party conspirators” were posthumously vindicated and judicially rehabilitated by the Czechoslovak Supreme Court. But as the Soviet troops in 1968 moved into Prague to suppress the reform movement, Heda, fled the country. Her son, Ivan, was already studying in Great Britain. Moving to the United States, she became a librarian at Harvard law school.

. Heda, has also become known as the acclaimed author of the memoir “Under a Cruel Star.” The book was hailed by reviewers as an “exceptionally intimate and poignant memoir by a Czechoslovak exile… Who survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps and then the horrors of Stalin’s Communist reign of terror.”

Following the Velvet Revolution, and the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia, Ivan Margolius, by than a noted architect and writer, returned to Prague to do research for his book, “Reflections of Prague: journeys through the 20th century.”

Searching through secret state archives, 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.

He also learned that the secret police received orders to take the ashes of his father, together with the other 10 executed defendants, for burial, in an unmarked grave, in the countryside. On the way there, the car skidded on the icy road.

“The ashes of the executed defendants were scattered under the Tartraplan, on the Benesov road, near Prague,” said, Ivan Margolius, in an interview with the Gazette.

In 1993, Ivan, did a guide book on Prague’s modern architecture and went to take a photo of the world famous writer, Franz Kafka’s, tomb in the New Jewish cemetery.

“It is a fine Cubist design by architect Leopold Ehrmann,” Ivan recalled. “When I walked round it I saw my family’s tomb, I forgot it existed. I nearly fainted from surprise and the amazing juxtaposition and coincidence…. It is just behind Kafka’s. It is one more example of Prague absurdities. Laying, there, head to head, Kafka, and one of the victims of a regime he described so accurately in his fiction.”

Actually, the ashes of Rudolf Margolius are not buried in the family tomb, next to Kafka’s. They were scattered on the icy road to Benesov. It is a granite memorial plaque attached to the family tomb, erected in 1922 by Ivan’s great-great grandfather that marks Rudolf Margolius’s existence in this world.

After the Velvet Revolution, Heda Margolius moved back to Prague. She died there last December at the age of 91, two days after the 58th anniversary of her husband’s execution. Her ashes had found a resting place at the Margolius family tomb, next to Kafka’s.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.


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