Episode 3

Heda Kovaly

“And they let us get out of the train to bring some water—the young people. So they said, ‘Out and get the water.’ And I remember how we got out of the train and there was some, a pile of gravel. And there was this beautiful flower growing out of this mess. And it was a purple, beautiful, gorgeous flower. And I thought, This is the last flower I’m going to see.”

When Heda Kovaly was deported from Prague to the Lodz ghetto, along with thousands of other Jews, she never imagined that of her entire extended family, only she and her husband would return alive.

Photos and Artifacts

Ervín Bloch with his son Jiří Bloch and his daughter Heda Blochová, Prague 1925. Photo courtesy of Margolius Family Archive, not to be used without prior copyright holder's permission.

Rudolf Margolius and Heda Blochová, wedding photograph, Prague, April 1939. Photo courtesy of Margolius Family Archive, not to be used without prior copyright holder's permission.

Heda Margolius on vacation in Krkonoše Mountains, 1950. Photo courtesy of Margolius Family Archive, not to be used without prior copyright holder's permission.

Heda Margolius Kovály, Municipal House, Prague 2003. Photo courtesy of Margolius Family Archive, not to be used without prior copyright holder's permission.

A Jewish policeman and a German soldier direct pedestrian traffic across the main street dividing the two parts of the Lodz ghetto, approximately 1940-1941. Later, a wooden footbridge was built over the street to allow the streetcar route to remain in the Aryan sector. The German sign at the ghetto entrance reads, "Jewish residential area. Entrance is forbidden". Source: USHMM, courtesy of Zydowski Instytut Historyczny Instytut Naukowo-Badawczy (Public Domain)

Lodz Ghetto entrance guard. Courtesy of the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team www.HolocaustResearchProject.org

http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/Lodz/gallery/period/lodzghettoentrance.html

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Episode Notes by Dr. Samuel Kassow

Heda Margolius Kovaly spent most of her life in Prague. She was born there in 1919, shortly after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, and grew up in a democratic Czechoslovakia. In 1939 she witnessed the German takeover of Prague and, after surviving the Lodz ghetto and Nazi camps, returned to her native city in 1945. Five years later, she saw her idealistic husband Rudolf, another Holocaust survivor, fall victim to Stalinist terror and endured harassment and persecution at the hands of the Communists. After spending many years with her second husband in the United States, she finally returned to Prague, where she died in 2010.

Heda grew up in a well-to-do family. Her father, Ervin Bloch, moved from his parents’ farm to Prague before the First World War, during which he fought in the Habsburg army, was wounded, and taken prisoner by the Serbs. When he returned from the war, Ervin rejoined the Waldes Company in Prague, a manufacturer of sewing devices and clothing hooks, where he became the general manager. In 1916 he married Marta Diamant and they had two children, Jiri and Heda. Heda had a very large family, with many uncles, aunts, and cousins. Only she would survive the Holocaust.

Ervin was a cultured man who was friendly with Max Brod and Franz Kafka. He took a keen interest in modernist art and architecture. Like many other Jews of his time and class, he was a fervent supporter of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomas Masaryk, who sought to build a nation based on the principles of democracy, tolerance, and decency. The success and stability of interwar Czechoslovakia convinced the Blochs that an era of liberal humanism would redeem the loss and destruction of the recent world war.

Heda went to fine schools, traveled widely, and learned foreign languages. She first met Rudolf Margolius, who also came from a well-to-do Czech Jewish family, in 1932, when she was only 13. They married on March 13, 1939, two days before the Germans occupied Prague and established a “Protectorate” over the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia became an “independent” German puppet state.

Heda’s father, like most of his generation, could not understand how in the space of a few months, their nation, abandoned by its allies in 1938, could experience the frightening transition from liberal stability to Nazi terror. The world they had known—its norms, rules, laws, its high culture—collapsed in a matter of weeks and months. To the very end, until their death in Auschwitz in 1944, Heda’s parents struggled, in vain, to grasp how this could have happened.

The Nazi persecution of Czech Jews escalated very quickly, through the loss of employment and businesses, the imposition of the yellow star, and expulsion from schools. Heda’s family was forced to move to a smaller apartment in 1939. Heda testified that the Czechs behaved decently during this time (although there are other survivors who were not as positive).

The deportations of Jews from Prague began in 1941, primarily to Theresienstadt and the Lodz ghetto. These in turn were way stations to the gas chambers of Treblinka, Chelmno, and Auschwitz or the shooting pits of Riga and Minsk. Of the 88,000 Jews who lived in the Czech lands in 1939, only 10,000 survived. The names of 77,297 victims of the Holocaust are etched on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague.

In October 1941, the Nazis sent 20,000 Jews from the Reich and the Protectorate to the Lodz ghetto, including Heda, Rudolf, and their parents. As Heda points out in her testimony, the Lodz ghetto was unique in several respects. While most Jews in the Warsaw ghetto managed to survive thanks to the massive smuggling of food paid for by a lively trade with the Poles over the wall, the Lodz ghetto was hermetically sealed. No food was smuggled in. There was no “Aryan side” to trade with since Lodz was incorporated into the German Reich and most of the Poles had been expelled. Jews in the ghetto were totally dependent on the all-too-scarce food that the Germans allocated. Sanitary conditions were frightful.

The Lodz ghetto was highly regimented. Enormous power rested, for a time, in the hands of the autocratic Chaim Rumkowski, who was convinced that the only way to buy time and save Jewish lives was to turn the ghetto into one massive factory in service of the Germans. When he could, Rumkowski tried to help Jewish children by maintaining schools and providing extra food. But he was powerless to stop the deportations to the gas chambers, which began in 1942. During that year, in three waves, 71,000 Jews were deported to nearby Chelmno.

An especially traumatic moment in the history of the Lodz ghetto was the “total curfew”(Gehsperre) in early September 1942. (Heda mistakenly said it took place in the spring of 1943.) Rumkowski wept as he told the ghetto population that the Germans demanded the deportation of all children under 10, all adults over 65, and, if that failed to meet the quota of 20,000, all people who looked weak and sickly. For one week, no one was allowed to leave where they lived, while the Germans went from building to building tearing away the children and carrying out selections in the courtyards.

Many Jews in the ghetto loathed Rumkowski, but they grudgingly gave him credit for his energy and his ability to wheel and deal and show the Germans that the ghetto was an asset. Indeed, Lodz was the last ghetto that the Germans liquidated. It survived until August 1944, when its remaining Jews, including Heda and Rudolf, were deported to Auschwitz.

Counting the deportees from the Reich, the Czech lands, and Polish provincial ghettos, about 200,000 Jews passed through the Lodz ghetto. A total of 43,743 died of sickness and hunger; 15,000 were deported to labor camps, where most of them died; 80,000 were deported to Chelmno (in 1942 and during a short period in 1944); and 67,000 were sent to Auschwitz in August 1944. At that late date, about one in three Jews, including Heda and Rudolf, were selected for forced labor, while the rest, including Heda’s parents, were gassed. All in all, about seven to ten thousand survived.

On the ramp at Auschwitz, Heda and Rudolf were among the 20,000 or so Jews who were spared the gas chambers. After some time in Auschwitz, they were sent on to different labor camps: Rudolf to Dachau and Heda to Gross-Rosen. Heda used a forced march from Gross-Rosen in March 1945 to make a daring escape to Prague. Alone and without papers, she vainly asked old trusted friends to help her. Most were too afraid and refused. Finally, one did. Heda survived to see the liberation of Prague and then learned that Rudolf had also survived. They were reunited in 1945.

In her book The Taste of Ashes, Marci Shore quotes the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera: “And so it happened that in February 1948 the Communists took power, not in bloodshed and violence, but to the cheers of half the population. And please note: the half that cheered was the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half.” Indeed, by the time the Communists took power in that bloodless coup in February 1948, Heda and Rudolf had already joined the party and they were certainly among those who cheered the takeover.

Why did they become Communists at a time when anyone who cared to look knew all about the reign of terror in Stalinist Russia? One reason was that, like many Czechs, they could not forget how the western democracies had abandoned Czechoslovakia at Munich. As Jews and Holocaust survivors, they also admired the Communists they had met in the camps for their idealism, for their discipline, for their determination to resist. And they owed their liberation from the Nazis to the Red Army. They believed that the Communists would bring about a better society free of exploitation, racial hatred, and anti-Semitism. But as Heda admitted in her original testimony, “We were fooled… We didn’t realize that the only alternative to fascism was democracy.”

Rudolf quickly climbed the Communist ladder of power. He was idealistic, believed in the party, and worked hard. In 1949 he was promoted to deputy minister of foreign trade, in which capacity he handled important and sensitive negotiations with Britain, Sweden, India, and other countries. Heda and Rudolf’s only son, Ivan, was born in 1947, but Rudolf had little time to spend with his family. Now members of the party elite, Heda and Rudolf had a car, a nice apartment, and… new worries. Old friends begged Rudolf to leave his job. There were growing signs of anti-Semitism in the party, a purge was in the air, and he was too vulnerable. But he waved these worries aside, even when Heda urged him to quit.

Rudolf was arrested on spurious charges in January 1952 and was one of the 14 defendants in the well-known Slansky trial, which took place in November that same year. The Communist press pointedly emphasized that 11 of the defendants were of Jewish origin. Rudolf was forced to sign a confession and parrot his lines at the trial, which was broadcast on live radio. He was hanged in early December 1952.

Heda became an outcast. She was harassed by the authorities, which made it hard to properly care for her son. Thanks to the help of a few friends, she managed to support herself and Ivan and, in time, she became a writer and translator. Her son Ivan would go on to become a well-known architect. He also wrote a memoir about his parents entitled Reflections of Prague: Journeys Through the 20th Century.

The lives of Heda Kovaly and her husband Rudolf Margolius were marked by a double betrayal. The first was at the hands of the western democracies that abandoned their nation in 1938. The second was at the hands of the Communists, who they both hoped would redeem a nation and a world scarred by fascism and war. Instead, Rudolf survived the Nazis only to die at the hands of Stalinist anti-Semites, while Heda had to endure decades of privation and struggle. But in the end, through her writings and testimonies, she left a lasting legacy.

A note about the song Heda sings: In the episode, Heda sings the refrain of “Yidl Mitn Fidl,” a well-known Yiddish theater song taken from the Polish 1936 movie of the same name. The film was directed by Joseph Green and starred Molly Picon. The song lyrics were written by the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger. The lines Heda sings translate to “Yidl with the fiddle / Khaykl with the bass / We play a song / In the middle of the street.” Heda’s lyrics are a variation on the original version: “Yidl mitn fidl / Arye mitn bas / Dos lebn iz a lidl / To vozhe zayn in kas?” or, in English, “Yidl with the fiddle / Arye with the bass / Life is a song / So why get angry?”

Additional readings and information

Kovaly, Heda Margolius. Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968. Cambridge, MA: Plunkett Lake Press, 1986.

Margolius, Ivan. Reflections of Prague: Journeys Through the 20th Century. Chichester, England; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006.

Shore, Marci. The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. New York, NY: Crown, 2012.

Heda’s unedited testimony at the Fortunoff Video Archive (available at access sites worldwide): https://fortunoff.aviaryplatform.com/r/xs5j960m47.