Heda Margolius Kovály’s Exceptional Life Navigating a Century of Horrors

Based on interviews with award-winning filmmaker Helena Treštíková, Hitler, Stalin and I (DoppelHouse Press, 2018) is the oral history of Heda Margolius Kovály. In the book Heda recounts her experiences under fascist and communist oppression in 20th century Czechoslovakia. In the following interview, Treštíková and Kovály’s son and translator Ivan Margolius give more context to the book and its publication.

Helena, of the many people you have interviewed over the years, what did you find most striking and unique about Heda?

Helena: Heda had an enormous talent for expressing herself openly to the outside world. She spoke with precision and was descriptive and witty in places – which in relation to the subject matter is especially rare. I admired her attitude and composure, even after all her extremely difficult experiences. Nazism and Communism, the two totalitarian regimes that passed through Central Europe in the twentieth century, afflicted Heda’s life directly with maximum intensity. Nevertheless, she remained an optimist, and for that I respected her greatly.

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Heda Margolius Kovály and Helena Treštíková in Heda’s apartment, Soukenická, Prague, August 2000. Photo: Vlastimil Hamernik

Ivan, as a book, how does Helena’s interview with Heda bring to light new details about her life?

Ivan: After the publication of Heda’s memoir Under a Cruel Star, a large number of readers began to request to know more details about Heda’s life before and during the Second World War, and about her life during her exile in the United States. After seeing Helena Třeštíková’s one-hour long film, I asked Helena for a transcript of the whole four-day interview and decided that it was the ideal material to supplement Heda’s original memoir and fill in the missing periods to produce a much more complete picture of her life.

She speaks from her heart throughout the interview, describing some unimaginable and harrowing moments. Helena’s questions led Heda gently to reveal more of her fate, personality and reflections, giving Heda courage to talk openly even about the very personal and intimate feelings that she would not have dared to reveal otherwise.

What can we learn from Heda’s accounts of history?

Ivan: Heda’s acute observations of the world and its peoples still continue to be relevant today especially in the light of recent rising expressions of intolerance, hatred and acts of terrorism. Her story provides a truly perceptive personal record of the twentieth century’s turbulent history seen through firsthand experiences, which were affected directly by the major political upheavals of the times.

Helena: I first became acquainted with Heda during the screening of Zuzana Justman’s documentary, A Trial in Prague (2000), at Prague’s Evald Cinema. Straight away Heda enchanted me in that film with her extraordinarily direct and open minded presence. Immediately I had an idea to make a documentary film with her about her life, which was so horrendously typical of twentieth-century Central Europe, where there was no escape from global political events. 

Ivan Margolius and Heda Margolius, Prague, 1948. Courtesy Margolius Family Archive.

Ivan, what was it like for you to do the translation?

Ivan: My mother was a brilliant translator from English, French and German into Czech. In a way I tried to emulate her skill. As an author and translator, I spent months on the translation into English to make sure it captured Heda’s spirit and poetic and perceptive expression of her interview in all ways possible.


How did you come to understand your father’s story and get involved with the project to obtain an apology after his wrongful execution in an anti-Semitic and Stalinist show trial?

Ivan: After accidentally finding the transcript of the Slánský Trial buried deep in a drawer at home as a schoolboy living in Prague in 1961, I had to wait another two years for Heda to gather the courage to tell me in detail of my father’s fate. And it’s only very recently that I have steeled myself to listen to the actual sound recording of Rudolf’s trial deposition (which differs from the prewritten text that he was forced to memorize and from the later published transcript). I begged Heda to write the whole story down, if not for the general readership then at least for me, the future generations of our family, and our remaining distant relatives.

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The accused await their verdicts at the Slánský Trial, Prague, November 27, 1952. All of the defendants are flanked by military officers. Rudolf Margolius can be seen in the third row at the edge of the photograph. Rudolf Slánský is in the front row, second from left. Courtesy Česká televize.
Rudolf Margolius, summer 1949. Courtesy Margolius Family Archive.

In 1963, the Communist government of Czechoslovakia published its findings and the innocent men executed, my father among them. Since then, the trial has been written about in various books, but there has neither been an official declaration of innocence nor an apology by subsequent governments. My own efforts have been thwarted even by the governments democratically elected since November 1989. The case has never been fully explained to the general public. Publishing Heda’s story serves as a measure of resistance to the official avoidance and unwillingness to confront the wrongs of previous regimes.

What are your own feelings about the Czech Republic today?

I have lived in the United Kingdom for more than fifty years. All of my children were born here, as well as my current wife. I have adopted my new country as my very own and am so grateful to have been truly accepted into its society. There are too many painful memories for me of the times in the Czech Republic, despite being born there and greatly admiring her cultural and technological heritage, which I try to be a propagator of to the Western audience. My heart remains in the United Kingdom.  

Auschwitz gateway 001What did your mother say was the difference between Nazism and Communism?

Ivan: She writes, “Nazism was clearly a gangster ideology that encouraged people to the worst behavior, plotting towards wars, calling one race superior to others and simply killing people and stealing; whereas, the Communists abused people’s altruism and kindness. They allured them with talk of humanity’s highest ideals, so it is difficult to say which was worse. I think Communism was worse because it lasted longer, so they could actually do more evil and harm than the Nazis. The statistics say that Stalin murdered more people than the ones who perished in both of the world wars.”

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Eventually Heda found work with Symposion publishing house, designing book covers.

In the months after your father was executed, Ivan, what was Heda able to do for employment as she was a kind of social pariah?

Ivan: She writes that after my father Rudolf’s death, “I began looking for work, but it was clear that I wouldn’t get any. Wherever I tried for a job as soon as people realized who I was, they told me they couldn’t employ me due to rigid personnel guidelines. Month after month I ran around and couldn’t find anything. Finally I applied for a job as a cleaner in a hospital, and they told me: ‘You can’t do this. We’re bound by strict government guidelines.’ My situation was very dangerous. Those who didn’t work were classified as society’s parasites and would go to prison.”

How did Heda reflect on her life at the end?

Ivan: She was quite hopeful. She wrote, “It is a terrible thought that in the 20th century we lived through two of the most dreadful catastrophes of human existence that have occurred since ancient times. Nevertheless, someone survived, started a new life, had children, worked, was useful to society, watched the flowers grow, walked in the woods and swam in the sea. Life went on. Even in the worst moments I could say to myself: ‘Life can still be good!’ I survived twice, and each time it was really dreadful. But now I have a future in those small children, in my grandchildren and in my son. There’s nothing to regret. Who has won? Stalin is gone. Hitler is gone, and I’m still here. What else could I possibly want?”

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People in Prague marching in protest and surrounding Warsaw Pact occupation tanks. Courtesy Česká televize.

Remarkably, Kovály, who was exiled in the United States after the brutal crushing on the Prague Spring, only had love for her country and continued to believe in its people. When asked about this compassion, Heda recalls the days of resistance at the time of the Warsaw Pact Invasion in August 1968: “That was the only time in my life when I saw people being fully united, as one, in solidarity, truly together in noble spirit…it was like one huge being who thought, felt and did everything with such unanimity and such acumen that it was staggering. That image of unity that we took with us when we finally left for exile kept our spirits up for years – I came from that country where so many good people lived.” Her husband was posthumously exonerated and she returned to Prague in 1996, where she lived until her death in 2010.

Profile photo of Heda Margolius Kovály in Prague, 2001. Courtesy Česká televize.

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.

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. He has been awarded several writing prizes, including winning the 2017 British Czech and Slovak Association First Prize for his article about architects Karel Honzik and FRS Yorke, “Honzík and Yorke: How a Czech Architect Became the Prime Mover in the Ascent of Modern Architecture in Great Britain,” as well as the second prize from the BCSA in 2014 for his article “A Sound of Sauerkraut Exploding.”