Heda Margolius Kovály’s Under a Cruel Star recalls the social and political struggles in Prague between 1941 and 1968 that resulted directly from the Second World War and its aftermath during the Stalin era. Under a Cruel Star is a fantastic candidate for European history survey courses across the U.S. because it provides readers with a humanistic, primary account of the tragedies that shaped the history and development of Eastern Europe. This memoir can provide students with the opportunity to understand the humanity within these cataclysmic events in a significantly more meaningful way than reading about the statistics in a history textbook. Consequently, the value that this book will have to educators as a resource in their pursuit of helping students truly understand the monumental effects of these sociopolitical conditions will prove to be exceptionally beneficial for the firm financially as well.
Under a Cruel Star is distinctive as a historical text because it is a continuous narrative of successive political events that are heavily related to one another, which is very useful for understanding the chronological history of events as a fluid rather than as separate entities. Also, the speaker reflects the perspective of a woman, giving audiences an insight into gender roles in Eastern Europe in the mid 20th century. Heda Margolius Kovály’s memoir’s most valuable asset its outstanding ability to allow readers to understand the psychology that contributed to the ideologies that led to such travesties and destruction of a monumental size, all while shedding light on what these experiences were actually like to live through. Heda Margolius Kovály’s female perspective of living through the war and the revolution is a unique characteristic of this piece. Kovály highlights the fact that those women who returned to society after the war often did not have any family, leaving them to fend for themselves in a society that was in the midst of the political unrest. Even after the end of the war, finding housing, work, and food became very arduous tasks and women had to rely on the help of others to return to a normal life within society.
Heda discusses many women who were helpful to her, providing her with food and lodging, but also those who let the fear of persecution interfere with their humanity. Through her descriptions of her encounters with old family and friends and female nurses and doctors, she illustrates the different roles that women had in society at this point in time, which varied drastically due to the spectrum of political ideologies. The shift in the role of women becomes very evident when Heda’s husband Rudolf is forced into a political position of high importance. Heda is very strong-willed and independent, yet she has to take on the persona of the ideal wife by entertaining guests and attending Party functions where she and the other wives would sit and discuss superficial topics, which they did not enjoy. It is clear that this is a woman’s expected role in Czechoslovakian society, especially for those whose husbands are involved in government. After the arrest and conviction of her husband, however, the reader sees Heda’s strong will and determination become present again as she takes it upon herself to fight for justice on behalf of her innocent husband while taking care of her young son. Kovály spent a small eternity writing letters to Party officials and attempting to meet with them and lawyers who could help prove her husband’s innocence, all while remaining hopeful. This contrast between the typical housewife and the activist fighting for social justice exhibits Heda’s transition from a typical role to an atypical one, which also showcases her exceptional character and strength.
After her husband was declared innocent, Heda did not simply accept the reimbursement for her lost property but rather demanded that legal action be taken against all those implicated in Rudolf Margolius’ execution due to the fact that officials “knew that were sending an innocent man to death. This makes them guilty of murder” (173). Even in her situation of utter despair and public ostracism that went on for more than a decade, she continued in her fight for justice. Heda’s extraordinary strength of character and willingness to defy stereotypical gender roles led to her survival during these exceedingly difficult circumstances. This work can be seen as an asset to the study of gender in Europe during the 20th century, adding to its value in an educational setting. The majority of literature about WWII, the Holocaust, and the Stalin era are comprehensive about a single event. For example, most documentaries about the Holocaust end with Nazi death camps being liberated by Soviet and American forces, and the terror that the prisoners experienced is assumed to end as they return home.
Through Kovály’s use of meticulous detail and pathos in her writing, Under a Cruel Star exhibits the true horror and barbarity that characterized the concentration camps during WWII. After Kovály explains what it was like to be in the wake of death constantly, she contrasts the experience of gaining “the greatest freedom that anyone at that time and place on earth could possibly have” with the fact that for those who were fortunate enough to survive, the return home was a subsequent battle to be faced (17). Furthermore, the deep-seated hatred that would remain reflected “the deep corrosion that the war had inflicted upon us. It had divided people like the slash of a knife, and that wound would take a long time to heal,” (43). Kovály describes how the events of the War played a significant part in the road to the Revolution, which highlights the importance of this work as a continuous narrative that showcases the evolution of political parties and ideologies over time, and how the events that occurred were dependent on each other.
Perhaps the most valuable advantage of this memoir is its ability to help the reader understand WWII and its aftermath in Eastern Europe through the author’s explanation of ideologies that led people to the horrific actions that took place. Starting with her accounts of being in the concentration camps, Heda highlights the ignorance and fear that are very present in totalitarian regimes. The author notes that “Once you relinquish your freedom for the sake of ‘understood necessity,’ for Party discipline, for conformity with the regime, for the greatness and glory of the Fatherland, or for any of the substitutes that are so convincingly offered, you cede your claim to the truth” (11). This is a common theme during WWII and the Stalin era throughout the memoir. Kovály highlights her experience with the owner of the brickyard who “lived in Nazi Germany and had daily contact with a concentration camp and its inmates, yet he knew nothing” and simply thought that the women were convicts (15). The theme of ignorance among people in totalitarian states is often times astounding, especially because students today see history from an omniscient perspective. Ignorance is seen during and after the war in the sense that some people are essentially brainwashed by Nazi and Communist propaganda. For instance, when Prague is cut off from the West, it became easier for the Party to have total control over its people’s beliefs because they were not at liberty to receive information that was neither partial nor biased, and the perception of truth became very distorted. Nevertheless, the temporary success of the Party was also significantly reliant on fear, and the combination of ignorance with fear can be attributed to its acquisition of power in the time following WWII. Paralyzing fear is something that Heda and the rest of society experience from 1941-1968. In the concentration camps, the fear of death was continuous as the prisoners witnessed the deaths of their friends and family unceasingly. After Heda’s escape, those who she reached out to for help were extremely fearful because not reporting contact with “illegals” was a punishable crime. The Party used fear as a main tactic to dissuade individuals from thinking about the ideals of the Party and subsequently speaking out, which was also a punishable offense, even though the Party was theoretically trying to improve society for its inhabitants. In these cases, “power sustained by fear is an infinitely cruel and dangerous situation” (71). This was true for both the Nazis and Communists who utilized this combination to take so many innocent lives in their acquisition of power. As the Party’s power was declining around the time of the Prague Spring of 1968, citizens were finally allowed to voice their opinions, exhibiting that progress can result from words, which are the weapons of the defenseless, but fear needs to be overcome in order to accomplish this successfully. This is seen in Prague when “the grim reign of ideology was over, and maybe truth in its own oblique, unpredictable way had prevailed overall” (191).
Heda Margolius Kovály’s Under a Cruel Star is a piece of historical literature that will most certainly prove to be beneficial for students and educators while financially benefiting our firm because it is a work that is truly unique in nature. Under a Cruel Star contains the necessary historical information that textbooks for European history survey courses also have, yet the fact that this is a first hand account of these events that is told by a woman of such remarkable character is what will make a lasting and significant impression on students. Heda’s perspective that touches upon women’s roles in society, the perspective of events in a chronological manner rather than separate entities, and the ignorance and fear that led to extreme ideologies truly provides the reader with the opportunity to understand how significant WWII and its aftermath were in the course of history and in the development of today’s global climate, making this work an asset to all parties involved.