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WORLD FOCUS: On innocence

June 11, 2015
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

Neither the Nazis nor the Communists could silence her. Heda Margolius Kovaly, the author of the landmark memoir, "Under a Cruel Star," first published in 1973, and since published in many languages all over the world, has now emerged as a writer of a fascinating fiction novel, "Innocence."

It reflects with great insight and accuracy on a Kafkaesque world that has unfolded in Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1950s.

While in her memoir, Kovaly has described her struggle to survive in Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp, then in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, in "Innocence" she shines as a mystery writer "who uses suspense, hints and suggestions to literally play with the reader's mind."

Reviewing "Under a Cruel Star," Alfred Kazin, writing in The New York Times noted, "This is an extraordinary memoir ... heartbreaking ... yet it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovaly's splendidness as a human being."

Now it was John Banville's turn to review Kovaly's new book, "Innocence." The Irish author, who is often called "the heir to Proust" wrote, "A luminous testament from a dark time, 'Innocence' is at once a clever homage 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."

What seems to differentiate Kovaly's fiction from Chandler's writings is her experience of living in a police state. She is a writer who lived her material, capturing all the fear and terror of the oppressed.

Cara Black, the best-selling American mystery writer, reflecting on the subject of Kovaly's novel writes, "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 Kovaly write an emotionally wrenching tale, she lived it during the 1950s Communist state."

Indeed, as I reported in a 2011 column, Heda Margolius, the wife of the Czechoslovak deputy minister of foreign trade, found herself and her young son Ivan in the midst of a man-made nightmare. Her husband Rudolf was arrested, imprisoned and accused of high treason and espionage. He was subsequently sentenced to death and executed after a 1952 show trial orchestrated by Moscow on Stalin's orders.

In 1963, Rudolf Margolius and the other "anti-party conspirators" were posthumously vindicated and judicially rehabilitated by the Czechoslovak Supreme Court. In the meantime, Heda, branded as the wife of a "political traitor," had been thrown out of their apartment, lost her job and living with her son in a one-room living-space, hardly could eke out a meager living.

In 1968, as the Soviet troops moved into Prague to suppress the reform movement, Heda fled the country. First she went to Great Britain, where her son was already studying, then settled in the United States, where she became a librarian at Harvard Law School.

As it sometimes happens, Heda, the famed Holocaust memoirist, wanted to render her experiences of living in an atmosphere of oppression, and felt she could do it only as a novel. Nearly lost to censorship and untranslated for decades, "Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street" has been published now in the United States.

"My mother's novel was published first under a pseudonym by an emigre press in Cologne, Germany, in 1985," said her son Ivan, himself a noted writer, in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette. "After Heda's passing in 2011, at the age of 91, I have managed to get a Czech edition out."

Translated by Alex Zucker, Pen Translation Co-Chair, "Innocence" is a remarkable story that combines cultural and political observations with crime fiction. It is a testimony to the most brutal times of the 20th century.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with the permission from the Virginia Gazette. He is the author of "Repots from a Distant Place" a compilation of his selected columns.



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