Posted on December 11, 2008 by Carole Langille
When I sent Heda Magolius Kovaly the poem I wrote for her after reading her memoir Under a Cruel Star, she wrote in reply, “I hope you will come to Prague. We have a lot to speak about.” I was elated. I had been moved by the account of her escape from Auschwitz. But at the time she wrote me this letter, I was a single parent with two young children and could barely pay my bills each month. I wondered how I would ever get to Prague. For me, the very name of the city evoked mystery and impossibility. But Heda’s letter started something moving. It took me eight years, but on the 27th of June 2005, I finally arrived in the city I had thought about for so long.
The first morning there, I left my new husband and my son sleeping in the apartment we’d rented for ten days, and went to the corner café to call Heda. At first she was confused as to why I was calling, although I had written and phoned from Canada and she knew my plans. Then she remembered. She couldn’t meet me tomorrow, she said, she had a cold. She was sorry. Would I call again in a couple of days?
But two days later it was raining and Heda said she wasn’t able to go out. She asked again why I had come to Prague, anxious that I may have come only to see her and that she might have to disappoint me. I assured her I had traveled from Nova Scotia to Czechoslovakia to give a poetry reading, but that it would be wonderful, since I was there, if we could meet.
I would be reading at “The Alchemy Reading Series” in a few days, but the truth was, it was her words, not mine, which had brought me to this country. She was an 86 year old woman, her voice frail over the phone, but as I listened, I realized once again that she and she alone had fueled this journey. There was no one I wanted to see more.
In l997, when a friend gave me Heda’s book, I was swept into her world. She wrote about how her family was herded up, along with other Jews in Prague: “Even though in the following years I would experience infinitely more grueling transports, this one seemed to me to be the worst because it was the first. If every beginning is hard, the beginning of hardship is the hardest.”
She described fleeing Auschwitz, running past guards, past dogs, “alert to every rustle in the darkness,” then hearing a bullet strike the girl running behind her. She described the strangers who helped her and the friends who turned her away. If the Gestapo found Heda, it meant not only death for her but for anyone who had aided her.
She wrote about the uprising in Prague at the end of the war, when she was working with the resistance, helping wounded soldiers. Word came that guns were available if two volunteers, dressed as Red Cross nurses, could smuggle the weapons through the line of German soldiers. Heda volunteered, but another woman was needed to help her carry the basket in which the guns were hidden. An elderly woman in a nurse’s uniform stepped forward. They were able to dodge bullets, but then a young German soldier came up to them, pointed a rifle and started shouting. It was the older woman who spoke to him in German, assured him that they were carrying only bandages, offered him some gauze, and procured them safe passage. Heda wrote, “I shall always remember the woman with love. If courage is the capacity to conquer one’s fear, she was the most courageous person I ever met.”
Heda was the one I loved and was the most courageous person I had, if not actually met, hoped to meet. She writes how she survived the camps and, miraculously, her husband Rudolph did too. They were reunited. But though the terror of the Nazi invasion was over, atrocities continued against the Jews . “For many people in Czechoslovakia after the war,” Heda wrote, “the Communist revolution was just another attempt to find the way home, to fight their way back to humanity.” Rudolph believed that dedicating himself to the Bolshevik government would be a way to ensure that the holocaust would never recur. But the Soviet Bloc of the l950’s was an Orwellian world in which many of the top ranking government officials were Nazis under a different guise. Heda’s husband Rudolph, “the kindest man (she) ever met,” was framed by the Bolsheviks in the infamous Slansky trial of 1952 and executed.
It is rare that someone not only lives through a time of trauma, but has the genius to write about the events so the reader becomes a witness as well. Primo Levy was one such writer. Heda Margolius Kovaly is another. She wrote: “It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies. He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in a corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about. Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer’s sonorous voice would boom through the crack, ‘You would have thought we’d be rid of them finally, but no, they’re impossible to kill off-not even Hitler could manage it. Every time there’s more of them crawling back like rats . . . ‘ And the survivor would quietly get up from his chair and slip out of the waiting room, this time not laughing. On his way down the stairs his eyes would mist over as if with the smoke of the furnaces at Auschwitz.”
When I first read Heda’s memoir, I felt as if I knew her. I wanted to respond to this woman who spoke to me so directly. When I wrote the poem “How Much, for and about Heda, I was able to send it to her in Prague, as a friend located Heda’s address. Shortly afterwards I received her reply, dated June 22, 1997:
My dear Carole,
Your letter with the beautiful poem was here, waiting for me when I returned from a trip to England to visit Ivan and his family. Thank you for both very much. I too am grateful to be a Jew. I met so many angels in the ghettos & concentration camps. To me being Jewish does not mean religion only but a way of existence. As for hate- the sure source of disaster- there has been enough of it already. One tries not to get contaminated. I hope you will come to Prague one day. We have a lot to speak about. In the meantime, be well and happy. Many thanks again,
Here in Prague, waiting to meet her, I had time to wander the medieval streets and look at the Gothic and Baroque Towers and churches. I climbed the town hall and gazed at the red roofs of old town and the spires of the Tyne Church that loomed above the other buildings. I crossed the Charles Bridge lined with stone figures of saints and walked up the cobbled squares to the Castle. Inside the Clementinum, I was astonished by the library where powdery light seeped through Cathedral windows onto the dusty books and early globes which were so preserved they transported me back to the 18th century.
This ancient library in a Baroque building was the one Borges wrote about in his short story, “The Secret Miracle,” where the librarians look for God in each of the books. One says, “God is in one of the letters of one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand books of Clementinum. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have looked for this letter; I myself have gone blind looking for it.”
I climbed to the tower where the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler calculated the movement of the planets. Prague was thrilling and magnificent, but it was also a city of ghosts. Kafka’s face loomed from posters in stores and restaurants. In the small Jewish cemetery, for centuries the only place Jews were allowed to be buried in the city, tombstones tilted in disarray on ground where thousands of bodies are buried one on top of another. A memorial in a building by the old Jewish Cemetery displayed clothes and books belonging to the children sent to Therezin, and the drawings they made, along with dates of those who perished and the few who survived. On a wall were listed the names of the thousands who were murdered in the camps.
I was invited to a party to celebrate Canada Day at the residence of the Canadian High Commissioner where a jazz band played and translators and artists gathered. But it was Heda I had come to this country to talk with. I thought about her every day.
I called her in the morning on Sunday, July 3rd. First she said she wasn’t well and asked if I would call in the afternoon. At three o’clock, I reached her again. Yes, she could get together with me, but where? We finally agreed to meet under the clock in old town. “Do you know where that is?” I asked.
“Of course. I was born in Prague!” she said.
The astronomical clock in Old Town is from the 15th century and on it are signs of the zodiac and the positions of the sun, moon and pole star. As the hour changes, the carved wooden skeleton Death clangs his bell, the Turk on his left shakes his head, Greed brandishes his stick and bag of gold and Vanity admires his reflection in the mirror. Above these figures, two doors open and the twelve apostles parade past. There are always crowds watching this pageantry and they unfailingly cheer. Another hour is passing! Legend has it that Wencelas the IV had the clockmaker blinded so his remarkable feat of engineering would never be repeated. The enormity of Prague’s grim history is revealed even in its myths.
Heda said she would be at the clock at 3:45. I asked if she was sure that would be enough time, and she assured me it would be. At 4:45 she still hadn’t arrived. My husband Bill told me to be patient, that Heda was probably not aware of how long it would take her to walk, but I was worried. I didn’t want to leave our arranged spot so I urged Bill to call. He returned to say that he’d reached her husband, (Heda married again after Rudoph was killed ) and that Heda had left a while ago.
Then I saw her, a slender woman barely five feet tall, her pretty, white hair curled below her ears, walking with great liveliness toward the clock. When she saw me and smiled, I ran to her and we hugged as if we were old friends. We hugged as if we’d recognized each other after a long separation. My husband and son Luke were watching and I introduced them to Heda. She was especially delighted to meet my son. She said to me, when we sat down at the coffee shop, “Children are everything. It’s the reason we’re here.” She asked me if I were jealous of Luke. “No, ” I told her. “I wouldn’t want to be fifteen again.” She said that when she was fifteen she was happy. Of course, when she was fifteen, her family was alive.
At the coffee shop, she didn’t want anything to eat and didn’t even drink the tea I ordered for her. She said her doctor told her she has to eat more but she didn’t feel like eating. When she talked, she recalled the time she was young in Prague. “My mother was very kind,” she said. “Young people would come to her for advice. And she was very beautiful. After the war, people would stop me when I was walking and ask about my mother. When they heard she’d been killed, they cried right there in the street.”
“It’s hard to think about the past, ” she said. “I don’t want to, I want to run.
Then I feel like I’m going crazy. You have to remember the past, otherwise, you’re not a whole person.” As she talked with me, Luke took photos on our digital camera. It had not occurred to me to take photos, but when I returned home I was so grateful to have pictures of Heda laughing, of Heda and me hugging.
She asked several times if I were happy. When I told her yes, she said, “That’s good. Be happy. Be well. ” She told Luke, “Be happy. Do everything you want.” She reminisced about traveling to Paris before the war and bringing back a cat. It was an elaborate story, something about the conductor of the train not charging the passengers because there was a cat on board. Her mother and father were amazed that she had smuggled back a cat but were glad to give it a home.
I asked how long it took her to write her book. She told me it didn’t take much time. “I wrote it a long time ago,” she said. I told her how moving it was, how brilliant, but she dismissed me, saying, “I had a horrible life. If you had a horrible life, you would do what you had to do, like me. ”
Earlier that yea , when I had called Heda from Nova Scotia to tell her I was finally coming to Prague, I mentioned to her how beautiful she was. “I am an old lady now,” she said on the phone. Perhaps so, but when I met her in person I saw, just as I imagined, how beautiful she still was. I could see how she would have escaped her captors. Her slender body, her sharp mind, contained so much power and energy.
She didn’t want to accept the few gifts we brought, but she finally did. And although at first she refused our offer to walk her home, she finally let my husband carry some packages and we all walked together.
“I will remember you all of my life,” she said. “Don’t forget me.”
How could I forget her?
We stayed in Prague a few days more. In my recent book is the poem I wrote for Heda and I read this poem at the poetry reading at The Tulip Bar, to an audience who knew who she was. Three other poems from the book had been translated into Czech and a man in the audience came to the stage and read them aloud. I was so moved to hear them in a language not my own, the language in which “Under a Cruel Star” was originally written. The ex-pat from the US, Ken Nash, who organized the reading, said that once you spend time in Prague you want to come back. Heda returned after years of living abroad because, even though it holds agonizing memories for her, she loves the city. Several times during our conversation she asked if I liked Prague.
Of course I was drawn to this city where Rilke was born and began university, where Kafka lived his entire life, where the building in which Mozart premiered Don Giovanni was still intact. But the person who made this city live for me is Heda. “I had a very good time with you,” she said when we parted. “You are a darling, When will I hear from you?”
Since my return to Nova Scotia, I have written to her several times. She has not written back. The last I heard, she had been in the hospital and was not well.
“Thank you for writing,” I told her in my poem. “I trace repeatedly how we’re related…” I wrote. When we finally met, I felt, more strongly than ever, that kinship between us.
I had the good fortune to hug her, and laugh with her, and thank her directly. I knew, when I read her book, that we were related, but I didn’t know how closely related we were. Isn’t someone who touches you so deeply, connected to you as closely or more closely than those joined to you by blood ? I miss Heda. I know I should be grateful that I had the chance to thank her in person, and I am grateful. But I want to thank her again. I want to keep thanking her.
for Heda Margolius Kovaly,
author of Under A Cruel Star
Thank you for writing. For letting me know
you pulled yourself over the fence
in the dark, your friend hurrying behind you. When you heard
the bullet hit, saw your friend fall,
you kept going. A young man you knew
opened his door a crack,
said no, you couldn’t stay there.
Had I to return
to my town under cover, whom
would I seek out? In my childhood, signs:
numbers on the arm of a woman down the block.
Judy’s German father recalling, “My friend stayed behind
to get his dry cleaning. They came for him that night.”
Though my parents were safe in New York, still I asked
“Weren’t you afraid?” Ever since I learned
what happened, I’ve rehearsed
what might have happened.
I trace repeatedly how we’re related:
Your Polish grandmother. A vacation on the Black Sea.
What my father’s family were doing there
I don’t know. They were serfs in Russia. But their paths
crossed. I’m sure. They shook hands
wearing prayer shawls.
You’ve as much as told me that was me, or almost me,
running behind you.
I picture you making your way back to Prague,
your shaven head hidden by a kerchief.
Told to line up to the left,
I bolt upright. In that dream
I relinquish my grandmother, glad
it’s not my mother.
Hate. The word fuels the belly’s anger.
But I did not find hate in your words.
Even when the Bolsheviks replaced the Nazis,
when they arrested your husband. You heard
his drugged voice, his forced confession.
Before they led him away for the last time
he spoke to you. Sixty years later you spoke to me.
Where I live now, in Nova Scotia, they say,
“He jewed me down.” No one shudders
that sea caves are called “The Ovens.” Each time
I’m grateful I’m a Jew, though how much
do I know about this religion? Heda,
I trace where our history converges to see
if any of your strength is in me, because
a woman like you wouldn’t give so much, you wouldn’t
reach over years, over continents unless
we were connected. You wouldn’t be
so determined, so honest
unless we shared something, even if it is only
this world, not yet recovered,
and this Faith, which for me, is mostly in name.
Carole Glasser Langille