“Hitler, Stalin and I” – an oral history based on Heda Margolius Kovály’s interviews with Czech filmmaker Helena Treštíková –published in English

Helena Treštíková, Heda Margolius Kovály, photo: Czech Television

Heda Margolius Kovály was a well-known writer and translator who survived the Auschwitz extermination camp and whose first husband, Rudolf Margolius, a deputy minister of foreign trade, was found guilty in the notorious Slánský show trials in what is one of the darkest chapters in Czechoslovak history. In the 1970s, Heda published a memoir which has been in print ever since. But now, a new publication called “Hitler, Stalin and I”, based on four days of interviews with documentary filmmaker Helena Treštíková in 2001 and made into a film of the same name, is set to be published in English.

Heda Margolius Kovály,  photo: Tatraplan,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Heda’s son Ivan Margolius, who is based in the UK, and has written extensively on Czech architecture and design, compiled the material and translated the text; as an oral history it should be required reading for anyone learning about the Holocaust and crimes committed by Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. It also offers a glimpse into Czechoslovakia’s First Republic.

I spoke to Ivan Margolius on a line to Great Britain this week.

“Heda published her memoir, Under a Cruel Star, in 1973 and ever since, it has been in print in a few different versions, but the definitive versions came out in 1986. A lot of people wondered what really happened during the First Republic and what happened when she went into exile, because those parts in her original memoir were missing. The main reason was that when she wrote it in 1973, she wanted to concentrate on the post-war era and the beginning of communism, so she left out those periods initially of the life that she went through during the war, mainly because a lot of other memoirs were coming out in the 1970s about the concentration camps, and she thought that she didn’t really want to repeat it.”

It is interesting to contrast between the book and the original one-hour documentary. The picture that emerges is one that it more complex, more detailed, and in a way more moving. You’re able to picture it in your mind’s eye and the words really sink in.

“Yes, you’re not distracted by the picture when you just have the words and you have the time to absorb the words and read it at your own leisure and pace. So, it is obviously much more intimate to get involved with a story by having the book in your hands rather than seeing the film. The problem with the film sometimes - and it is a beautifully done documentary - but sometimes, you miss a word or two because you are distracted by images or some other phenomena. So, having it in written form makes it easier to see or visualize, in your own mind, what was happening to Heda and to our family. It gets you closer to the story. I think the two complement each other, but obviously a four-day interview is much longer than a one hour documentary.”

One of the many strong points from this book is the description of the First Republic, and of course once that is put in the context of what came afterwards, it’s quite unforgettable. The kind of hope there was then compared to the suffering that she, the family, and your father had suffered afterwards.

Ivan Margolius,  photo: Milan Kocourek
“I think it’s very important to remember what happened before the war and after the First World War when Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, and the enthusiasm of all of the people suddenly living together in a free country who were finally free of Austro-Hungary from since the 1620s after the Battle of White Mountain. Suddenly, the people were a free nation and they lived together very happily with Slovaks, Hungarians, and Germans during those times. They all worked together very efficiently and diligently during those days and they had a different attitude towards life which, in a way, is all gone and no longer exists. Czechoslovakia was the 10th most industrious country in the world during those 20 years and its obviously such a shame what happened in 1938.

Then, in the book, we come to the Lodz Ghetto, there’s Auschwitz, there’s the death march that your mother survived. Her descriptions are unforgettable. Her strength must have been something quite remarkable…

“She didn’t really want to talk about it much because it was such a painful experience obviously, and really for us who haven’t lived through that period, any person who hasn’t, can’t really imagine what it could have been like. Such a shocking experience. It's just hard to imagine how people really lived through it, having been suddenly incarcerated in ghettos and then being transported to extermination camps and losing their parents in front of their eyes, being taken away and not knowing what was happening to them, being crowded in the barracks in Auschwitz, and you have no idea what happened to your husband or wife or children, it is just absolutely horrendous.

“It’s important, especially now, with so many people trying to deny the Holocaust, to remind the pubic what was really happening. The only people who can vouch for that time are people who had the experience first-hand, and its invaluable to have a book like this which is oral history to put on record what happened in that time.”

If we go to that time in the post-war period and the promise of socialism, from the perspective of your parents this was something that they believed in at the beginning, and again, it was sort of another period of a great amount of optimism, at least at first.

Photo: DoppelHouse Press
“Well yes, especially my father who wasn’t politically engaged as a young man before the war at all, I mean he was a member of the YMCA and went to a conference in Cleveland in the United States, so he was involved in the youth movement, but politically, he wasn’t really interested at all. After the war though, having experienced the camps, Auschwitz, the ghettos, and lost his parents and a lot of relatives, him being the only survivor from his family, it made an enormous impact on him and in addition, the Munich agreement was so shocking to him because all of a sudden, the western powers that he had put so much faith in before the war, suddenly abandoned Czechoslovakia. He was a soldier in the army just before the war, but he felt helpless because Czechoslovakia had to just give into the Third Reich which felt like such a humiliation to him.

“So, after the war, the impact of all of those horrors made him realize that he should do something to make the world better, and obviously the people who were incarcerated in the camps and in ghettos had lost contact with what was happening in the world. They had no information on what was happening politically elsewhere, so when they came out after the war, they didn’t have time to absorb the past six years of the war, in turn resulting in them being blinded by their experience and gave them this vision that they have to make the world better so that wars would never return and so that injustice towards minorities in the camps and the ghettos by the Nazis would never develop again, so that’s why he got involved with the government at the time, although it was a minor role; in the end being a deputy minister of foreign trade.

“His job was mainly dealing with trade between capitalist countries, so that’s why he was so targeted by the Soviet advisors, because he was a thorn in their sides because rather than negotiating trade agreements with the socialist countries and with the Soviet Union, he was negotiating with the west, with Belgium, Sweden, Britain and other countries and making very favourable trade agreements which were very beneficial to the Czechoslovak economy.

There’s this moment in the book where Heda mentions seeing Gottwald’s wife wearing jewellery, and it left an impression of a creepy feeling that things were "off", that they somehow weren’t going to go well, so I wanted to ask you if you think that she saw through it first?

Helena Treštíková,  Heda Margolius Kovály,  photo: Czech Television
“Yes, Heda was very perceptive in noticing people’s attitude and behaviour and as soon as she encountered the people in the government, she knew that they were not the right people to lead the country in a positive way. People were kept so busy at work I think on purpose. They loaded these people with work so that they didn’t have time to observe what was going on around them. He didn’t quite realize what was going on around him and he was only concentrating on what his role was and what he had to do.”

Your father was one of the victims of the Slánský trials and was one of the people who was sentenced to death.

“Well, I was hardly a five year old when my father died in 1952, so my mother very wisely sent me off to Rudolf’s cousin, who lived in Bratislava then, to shelter me from the situation. In turn, I wasn’t aware of what was happening, so when I came back to join her in early 1953, I realized that my father wasn’t around, but Head said that he died abroad, and I sort of accepted that it was a natural occurrence in a way.

“Only when I was around 14 did I discover, by chance, the transcript of the trial, which was published in 1953, in a drawer at home in our apartment. There I saw on the front page his name and the deposition of his living transcribed there. So, it was a shock then, but having seen it, I realized that I didn’t really want to tackle my mother with it straight away, so I waited for her to talk to me about it. Rehabilitations were talked about in 1963, so she thought that she should tell me and directly explain to me before someone else could tell me in an incorrect way, so I learned in great detail about my father’s fate when I was about sixteen years old.

None of the democratic governments since 1989 have really addressed the matter. Why do you think that is?

Rudolf Margolius,  photo: Wikimedia Commons Free Domain
“It is just totally incomprehensible to me. Since 1989, I have written to Havel, I have written to Klaus, I have written to Zeman, I have written to other officials about a re-examination of that period, and every time, I seem to be rebuffed and I just don’t get an answer from those people, its just incredible. In other countries like in Britain, if something like this happened where there was an injustice made to someone, obviously it takes time for matters to change, but in the end, the government that is in power at the time apologizes and makes good. However, in the Czech Republic, all I am told is that it has nothing to do with the current government and that the only ones who can apologize for the barbaric happenings in the ‘50s, are the people who committed the crimes, and that it’s not up to the current government, which is just appalling.

“I think that the reason for this is that the Slánský trials had a lot of different personalities involved, and there are still a lot of people who may have been involved or families of people who may have been involved in the whole atrocity, and no one wants it to be brought to the surface again and it continues to be swept under the carpet which is appalling. The rehabilitations in 1963 were all secret and the public has never been informed about it genuinely, so the Czech public doesn’t know any details and there are so many misunderstandings and all that I am told is that all of the fourteen people were communists and they deserved what they got.”