Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968 - Heda Kovály, Helen Epstein, Franci Epstein NO SPOILERS

During the last few days I have been reading Under A Cruel Star. Tom, one of my GR friends, brought to my attention that the author, in her nineties, had recently died. I had the book sitting there on my shelf and memoirs always attract me. I needed a good book after having been so disappointed by the last book I had read, Buddha's Orphans. Opening it I wondered, what would this book give me? You never really know by simply reading the blurb describing the book, as Buddha's Orphans made so very clear!

This is a memoir about the Czech author's experiences through the WW2 and the political turmoil in Czechoslovakia following the war, before the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The subtitle is "A Life in Prague 1941 – 1968." It gives an accurate description os the book's content. The emphasis is on the author's life after the war, although the horrendous experiences throughout the war, that would forever change her way of viewing life, are depicted.. Her war experiences are extremely moving, although straightforward and presented without pity. You immediately perceive that pushed to a certain point she rebels, she does not harshly judge others and has an ability to recognize how no two individuals have the same priorities. In a labor camp, her father chose to work in the fields, very strenuous and life threatening. Why would one make such a choice? She was able to visit her father:

"I saw for the first time how terribly he had aged, how pale he was, and how withered by hunger and humiliation. We stood together for a moment in the sunshine, and then my father took off his cap and said, shyly, 'Now in spring my heart feels so heavy……' It was only many years later that I understood why he had chosen to do this work which was far more strenuous than what he was doing before. Each day he had to walk a long distance before reaching the fields. Then, from dawn to dusk, he had to drag himself behind the plow, the heavy clogs on his feet sticking in the clay. But here he was alone with what he loved most, the freshly turned earth, the open sky, the clean breeze. On the eve of his death, he had returned to those things from which he had come." (page 76)

Over and over, you see the author's ability to find happiness in small, little things. She believes that without this ability she would have never survived. You see her ability to understand others' personalities. However, any attempt to read the book following the time line of her war experiences is hopeless. In fact, I went back and reread the first 40 pages to try and understand which events followed which, and was no wiser on the second reading! Sometimes I was a bit confused. For example, how she met her husband was confusing….. (This isn't a problem; the reader is told later in the book!)

The author states very clearly that, "I was more interested in what was happening around me in the present, among the people I loved, than in the foggy spheres of ideology."(page 65). Nevertheless, there are many pages focused on ideology and politics. I found it very interesting to understand how the surge in communism after the war was coupled to war experiences and perhaps even survivors' guilt. Her husband worked in the government; they knew the leaders and the party officials. Thus, the book offers a blend of both political and philosophical thoughts.

"I know there was nothing anyone could do. But they were taking away an 86-year-old grandmother to a horrible death, and the village where she had lived all her life, where everybody loved her, had just looked on. The only thing that anyone had had to say was, 'Mrs. Bloch, don't be afraid……'" (page 66)

So many friends promised so much help……. and yet so few could or did actually help. These friends are not judged harshly. Why they made the choices they made are clearly shown. This philosophical analysis is very interesting to me. Who wouldn't be changed by such experiences?! What was fascinating was to see her behaviour.

And I must include a few lines about Prague itself:

"Springtimes in Prague – who could forget them? Forsythias on the Letina Plain. The flowering hills of Strahov. …. But what is unique about Prague is the relation between the city and its people. Prague is not an uncaring backdrop which stands impassive, ignoring happiness and suffering alike. Prague lives in the lives of her people and they repay her with the love we usually reserve for other human beings. Prague is not an aggregate of buildings where born, work, and die. She is alive, sad, and brave, and when she smiles with spring, her smile glistens like a tear." (page 76)

I am enjoying myself. The content is interesting and moving.

Through page 120: By the early 1950s the Communist government in Czechoslovakia was corrupt. All lived with fear. You could trust no one. Life was FEAR. After the Communist coup in 1948 all were filled with hope for the future. Communism would bring peace and justice and fairness. Peculiar occurrences were laughed at……. But by 1950, 1951 or 1952 the climate had changed. So when some one did help – wow, you, the reader, jump with joy! But the author reasons:

"If everyone were a hero, what would courage be worth?" (page 117)

And this makes me laugh:

"I have an innate incompetence for anything mechanical. It has always seemed to me that a machine can tell from far away that I am afraid of it and that I don't understand anything about it, and breaks down on the spot out of sheer self-reservation." (page 120)

The author and I are soul-mates!

So who should read this book? You should be interested in learning about the Czech history from 1941 -1968, i.e. life during the War and the period following the War up to the Soviet invasion in 1968. You will learn much about the Slansky Trial and its aftermath. This trial is important. There were other similar trials. In them you visualize the corruption and anti-Semitism prevalent in Czechoslovakia, other Eastern European nations and in the Soviet Union at the end of Stalin's reign. You will learn through one woman's real experiences of these times. You will learn much, much more than any history book filled with dry facts and names. In this book you get all the facts, but you will also come to truly understand how it would feel to have been there yourself. This is NOT a book predominantly about war experiences. It is about the growth of Communism, the hope it began with and the disillusion that followed. You learn what it was like to be living then and there. This book is a winner. I give it 5 stars.