The oral history of a renowned Czech writer, whose optimism and faith in people survived grueling experiences under authoritarian regimes.
Heda Margolius Kovály (1919-2010) was a renowned Czech writer and translator born to Jewish parents. Her bestselling 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 Streetbased on her own experiences living under Stalinist oppressionwas named an NPR Best Book in 2015.
In the tradition of Studs Terkel, Hitler, Stalin and I is based on interviews between Kovály and award-winning filmmaker Helena Treštíková. In it, Kovály recounts her family history in Czechoslovakia, starving in the deprivations of Lodz Ghetto, how she miraculously left Auschwitz, fled from a death march, failed to find sanctuary amongst former friends in Prague as a concentration camp escapee, and participated in the liberation of Prague. Later under Communist rule, she suffered extreme social isolation as a pariah after her first husband Rudolf Margolius was unjustly accused in the infamous Slánsky Trial and executed for treason. Remarkably, Kovály, exiled in the United States after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, only had love for her country and continued to believe in its people. She returned to Prague in 1996.
Heda had an enormous talent for expressing herself. She spoke with precision and was descriptive and witty in places. I admired her attitude and composure, even after she had such extremely difficult experiences. Nazism and Communism afflicted Heda's life directly with maximum intensity. Nevertheless, she remained an optimist.
Helena Treštíková has made over fifty documentary films. Hitler, Stalin and I has garnered several awards in the Czech Republic and Japan.
I The Eyeglass by Kupka (The First World War and the First Republic)
II A Small Bloke in a Dirty Trench Coat (The Beginnings of Fascism and the Occupation)
III Weeds for Dinner (The Transport to Lódz Ghetto)
IV A Zest of Life (Living in Lódz Ghetto)
V A Word of Honor (The Transport to Auschwitz)
VI Columns of Five into the Gas Chambers (Auschwitz)
VII Kudla (The Labor Camp)
VIII Now or Never (The Death March)
IX Ten Lumps of Sugar (A Search for Prague Refuge)
X Striptease at the Housing Department (The Prague Uprising)
XI Carps Are Not Killed Here (The Postwar Life)
XII The Country in Decline (After the Coup, 1948)
XIII Without a Single Word (The Trial)
XIV The Eleventh into the Tally (After the Execution)
XV The Den in Žižkov (Life in Isolation)
XVI An Elegant Torch (The Warsaw Pact Invasion: 1968)
XVII A Line for Apple Strudel (The Exile)
XVIII What Else Could I Possibly Want? (The End)
Based on an interview with the late writer and memoirist Heda Margolius Kovály and the basis for a film shown on Czech television, this work stands out as one of the best examples of memoir literature.… The book has extraordinary momentum, reads in ‘one sitting’ and, were it not a depiction of real life events, could be described as a suspense thriller…. The story is so engrossing and filled with such immediacy and realism that the narrator, speaking from the soul, instantly wins the hearts of readers…. Stories of people with admirable fortitude struggling even in the most hopeless situations with a cruel fate will always find their audience.– Jan Hofírek, Kniha.cz, "An Exceptional Life Wandering Through the Century of Horrors"
Heda's torturous path through some of the 20th century's greatest calamities is rendered with deep wisdom and a poetic eye for detail. Her misfortunes, and her perseverance through them, make Hitler, Stalin and I both an important historical account and a testament to human endurance...A Czech writer who survived the Holocaust, Stalinism and exile gives a compact, compassionate oral history of her life.
– Tobias Mutter, Shelf Awareness
Oral interviews can be a gold mine for historians, and this is no exception.
– Tulsa Book Review
A compelling read, appalling and inspiring, tragic and hopeful. Heda's voice comes through incredibly strongly and my admiration for her clear headed courage and determination is very deep. Full marks to the interviewer for her part in getting Heda's testimony on the record. The words and tone of voice do not strike a false note. The translation reads simply and without affect. I cannot begin to imagine what reading and re-reading about Rudolf's murder must have been like. What degrading times they were [...] I am very pleased - if that is the word - to have read it.
– Sir John Tusa, presenter of BBC 2's Newsnight(1980-1986) and managing director of BBC World Service (1986-1993)
Třeštíková’s interview and chilling newsreel footage of atrocities bring Margolius-Kovály’s story to life. Her combination of determination and luck renders her almost matter-of-factly told tale extraordinary. […] In Margolius-Kovály (who penned the 1997 memoir Under a Cruel Star: Life in Prague 1941–1968), she’s found a composed, eloquent yet spunky subject whose quietly upbeat nature is inspirational and infectious.
– Eddie Cockrell, Variety
Heda had an enormous talent for expressing herself. She spoke with precision and was descriptive and witty in places. I admired her attitude and composure, even after she had such extremely difficult experiences. Nazism and Communism afflicted Heda’s life directly with maximum intensity. Nevertheless, she remained an optimist.
– Helena Treštíková
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. Kovály’s oral history 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. […] Her descriptions are unforgettable.
– Jan Velinger, Radio Prague
A story written by life itself. […] After all the hardships, Ms. Kovály remained someone with an open mind and many truths echo in her life story. The book is difficult to tear yourself away from until you finish the last page. This emotionally charged story, yet realistic and without embellishment, will not leave you in peace.
– Kamila Pětrašová, Kultura 21
In today’s political climate of rising extremist ideologies and nationalist tendencies, a new book, Hitler, Stalin and I, is an oral history that examines persecutions rooted in strong political rhetoric of exclusion. Czech author and Holocaust survivor, Heda Margolius Kovály [… gives] a panoramic view of life-long survival in the face of despair and violence, while retaining optimism and faith in the better angels of human nature.
– Frank Shatz, former correspondent for the Hungarian News Agency, The Virginia Gazette
Kovály’s story is engrossing, immediate and real. Kovály speaks from within, from her soul and pulls us into her life. I actually read the book in one sitting because I did not feel I could or wanted to stop. Prepare yourselves for an emotional read.
– Amos Lassen, Reviews by Amo Lassen ~Amos Lassen
It is hard to imagine a reader who would not be inspired by the momentous life of Heda Margolius depicted in Hitler, Stalin and I. [... The book] is at once a harrowing journey, a kaleidoscope of images and sounds. If a reader truly hears the haunting words as if they are spoken one can begin to understand that this life and death human drama is not just about one survivor but a meaningful observation of an even more significant story about the bloody outcomes of extremism.
– Laura Schultz, New York Journal of Books