Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Heda Kovaly: Under a Cruel Star (Review by E.J. Graff)

Recklessness and Arrogance
by E.J. Graff
Columbia Review of Journalism


In Under A Cruel Star, Heda Kovály tells of having escaped Auschwitz during a forced march at the age of fifteen; meeting and later marrying her childhood sweetheart, Rudolf Margolius; seeing him prosecuted and killed in Czechoslovakia’s first Stalinist show trial; and thus of living through two of the most barbaric episodes of a barbaric century. Kovály’s keenly observed, politically astute memoir offers intimate insight into how people behave under totalitarianism, how the human psyche can surrender to absolutism in the pursuit of beautiful ideals, how idealism can result in genuine evil (a noun I use advisedly) — and yet how civilization can restore itself, even after such horror. Under A Cruel Star has helped me think about the motivations and distortions of a vast range of political and social movements — McCarthyism, the Iranian revolution and its aftermath, Al Qaeda, any “radicalism” (left or right), and any movement that claims the word “liberation.” Strangely enough, it has even taught me about the virtues of both skepticism and optimism.


Kovály’s attention to the world’s beauty, even while in hell, is so brazen as to take my breath away. Or consider an episode in which Kovály impulsively screams at her overseer — a business person who had paid for Auschwitz labor — that she and the other girls could not be expected to work well while starving. Terrified, the other girls try to silence her, certain she will be shot. Instead, he pulls her aside and asks her to explain. She does, and he is visibly stunned. As she says later: “That man lived in Nazi Germany and had daily contact with a concentration camp and its inmates, yet he knew nothing. I am quite sure he did not. He had simply thought that we were convicts, sentenced by a regular court of law for proven crimes.” When we ask ourselves the important question — How can citizens let their government do such things, in their names? — it’s essential to know that the answer is, at least in part: they didn’t always know.

After spending only twenty pages on the Holocaust, Under A Cruel Star moves on to what Kovály finds to be the greater puzzle: “It seems beyond belief that in Czechoslovakia after the Communist coup in 1948, people were once again beaten and tortured by the police, that prison camps existed and we did not know, and that if anyone had told us the truth we would have refused to believe it.” And yet it happened.

Today we think of Communism as an outstanding example of how humanity’s best and most high-minded intentions can be perverted into the worst actions. Kovály explores how and why that occurred, with an emotional nuance and intellectual curiosity that ought to awaken even the most hopeless utopian or deadline-driven journalist. She can be mordantly funny and exactingly precise in recounting her friends’ and her own credulity. She paints a picture of her and her husband’s crowd — serious, thoughtful people, all — hungrily gathering at informal parties in Prague to debate which political system could best rebuild their society. Communist Party pamphlets and writings “offered such clear and simple answers to the most complicated questions that I kept feeling there had to be a mistake somewhere,” she writes. Injustice, discrimination, misery, war: they all happened because a powerful few exploited the rest. But the party would overthrow that handful of evildoers and divide the riches of the world equally.

How could they have swallowed such nonsense? Because, she explains, the war had beaten the confidence out of Czechoslovaks of all stripes. They had been forced to live as slaves, terrorized paupers, outlaws, or humiliated subjects of a brutal occupation, scrambling to make it from one day to the next. Nowhere else have I read such a vivid parsing of how national shame, personal humiliation, defeat, deprivation, and perpetual fear can lead the thoughtful to abandon their senses and yearn to be perfect — while the craven cloak themselves in the language of the good.

Kovály is especially good at examining the mentality of the camp survivors. “It is hardly possible for people to live for so many years as slaves in everyday contact with fascists and fascism without becoming somewhat twisted,” she writes. She and her fellow prisoners were tormented by having survived while everyone and everything they loved had been turned into lampshades and ash. They were too devastated even to stand up for themselves and insist that their former neighbors return stolen apartments, paintings, china, carpets. Living for the small everyday pleasures — home, family, friends, music, theater — seemed petty after such loss. To redeem their lost lives, they wanted to sacrifice themselves for a noble effort: creating a perfect future “in which this could never happen again.” And so they joined the party.

“Never again,” in this book, is shown to be a dangerous sentiment, a fundamentally religious belief, because it allows a vision of a perfect eternity to eclipse everyday reality. With the promise of a perfect future, who could be so petty as to complain about a few bread lines and shoe shortages, or a few moments of a hideously kitschy state-sponsored film? Silence was easier than enduring the endless self-critique sessions that spontaneous honesty could have engendered. But silence was the problem. “It is not hard for a totalitarian regime to keep people ignorant,” Kovály writes. “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.”


When I first read Under A Cruel Star, it illuminated Pol Pot’s and Pinochet’s reign of terror. Rereading it last year, I kept thinking of more recent events: The American government manipulating fear and idealism to justify torture camps in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. The Iranian revolution forcing grown women to walk around in large black bags for the sake of a pure society. The Israeli government using historical evils to justify a barbaric occupation. If you’re temperamentally a pessimist, as I am, you could react to these situations by locking yourself in your room for the rest of your life.

But the great challenge and joy of Kovály’s book is that she refuses you that option. Yes, she shows that human beings can be petty and fearful herd animals, manipulated by power, idealism, greed, or fear into condoning the most shocking atrocities. Nevertheless, hers is far from a Hobbesian world. Rather, it is a world in which what she calls “the spontaneous solidarity of the decent” can shake off tyranny, in which ordinary neighborliness and troubled middle-class consciences can undo the grand political machinations described in our newspapers and history books. For Kovály, respect for ordinary folks’ modest goals for daily happiness — good food, a nice home, time with family and friends — offers the most trustworthy path to a good society and a reliable political system. This may be common sense to others. But this testimony, offered from Europe’s heart of darkness, changed how I view the world.

Kovály’s intimate reportage shrugs off several popular journalistic theories of history: the mad leader (how did Hitler and Stalin become monsters?); “national character” or “ancient hatreds” (authoritarian Germans always hate Jews, the Balkans are always balkanized); and military strategy (“How many divisions does the Pope have?”). Kovály concentrates on personal decency. For her the key questions are not about what politics or religion you follow, but rather, how you treat the starving deportee who unexpectedly knocks at your door, the social pariah who desperately needs medical care, the widow who demands that her dead husband’s good name be restored. Is your response honest and sensible, or fearful and full of excuses? From that, all else follows —including the fate of governments. (my emphasis)


Entire Review Essay

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