Interpretation of Heda Kovaly's "Under A Cruel Star"

Updated on March 12, 2018
"Under a Cruel Star"
"Under a Cruel Star"

Heda Kovaly’s Under a Cruel Star is an autobiography based upon her experiences during the Nazi regime in Czechoslovakia, as well as her trials in several different concentration camps and Ghettos under the same regime. It also narrates her struggles during the communist transformation of Czechoslovakia, according to USSR standards and the heavy handed Joseph Stalin. More importantly than being a valuable source of history, however, this autobiography offers its readers an individual’s perspective on a unique and disturbing coming of age story. Her trials in those Ghettos and concentration camps forced Heda to become aware and solidify her own beliefs and values that constituted her own character. Just as importantly, they forced her to see in others the weaknesses and strengths that constituted their own. During this phase of her life, Heda’s naturally positive outlook towards the future and her perception of the beauties in the small details of her experiences, especially when in dangerous and chaotic situations, helped build a stronger character within her, which aided her survival when others could no longer go on. Disturbingly, it is almost as if her time spent in both the concentration camps and Ghettos was a playground where Heda was to build her character that helped her to also survive her struggles during the communist regime after the Second World War. The narrative of Under a Cruel Star, although drenched in the suffering of the Czech nation and the suffering of Heda Kovaly under both the Nazi and communist regimes, is greatly uplifted by her ability to find comfort in the small details of her chaotic life and her positive outlook towards the future, both of which helped to create her strong character.

Right from the beginning of her book, Kovaly states how important those two personal traits are to her that created her strong character. She says:

Three forces carved the landscape of my life. Two of them crushed half the world. The third was very small and weak and, actually, invisible. It was a shy little bird hidden in my rib cage an inch or two above my stomach. Sometimes in the most unexpected moments the bird would wake up, lift its head, and flutter its wings in rapture. Then I too would lift my head because, for that short moment, I would know for certain that love and hope are infinitely more powerful than hate and fury, and that somewhere beyond the line of my horizon there was life indestructible, always triumphant. (Kovaly 5)

This passage is significant to understanding the rest of this essay, because it explains the two traits that helped Kovaly survive. In the passage, she describes a little bird that would inspire hope within her, originating from a small detail in an experience. I believe that the shy little bird that she refers to lived within her heart. This was the little bird that, when surrounded by mayhem and chaos, slowed Heda’s senses down giving her time to focus on one aspect of her situation that she found comfort in. The bird was a stimulator and a sensor to these things. I believe that the spontaneity with which the little bird fluttered its wings made the experience that much more profound and beautiful for her; as if to say flutters of hope are more empowering than continuously wishing for it. A strong example of such a situation was when her family, along with the rest of the Jewish population of Prague, was ordered to gather their belongings and report to the Exposition Hall for deportation. Here, in a chaotic atmosphere caused only when a large group of people are forced to collect who cannot foresee the consequences of it all, did that little bird begin to flutter its wings and help Heda pinpoint a small detail to find comfort in. She describes, “I wandered around among those thousands of people looking for familiar faces. That was how I first happened to see him. To this day, I believe he was the most handsome man I have ever seen” (Kovaly 6). Heda continues on to describe the man from how his hands were folded to the trimming of his moustache, and how she befriended him at the Exposition hall, where they were awaiting their shipment to the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. Again, ignoring the confusion unfolding in this scene-children crying, elderly and the sick literally dying, as well as a woman losing her mind-Heda was able to find comfort and isolation within this man.

Heda’s sense for the small details makes her work beautiful to the reader and it makes it easier for us to understand why she believes it was in that little bird, the bringer of hope, that she was able to survive her journey. She says, in describing her reaction to first seeing the man, “Startled, I stopped and he rose” (Kovaly 6). This short quote is significant because it demonstrates a moment in time when that little bird began to flutter its wings. She was literally taken aback by how beautiful she perceived the man to be. She may not have exactly felt hope at that very moment, since she was still early in her journey and had not yet experienced the horrors awaiting her, but undoubtedly the little bird will show itself once again when she needs it most.

As expected, the little bird does show up again in what was supposed to be a terrible routine for her during her stay at Auschwitz. On the cold winter mornings at Auschwitz, Heda and the girls chosen to work in the same group with her were given employment outside of the camp, where they were ordered to move bricks. In order to get there, they were forced to ride in a flatcar for an hour, with nothing protecting them again the cold wind. While the other girls suffered during the trip, Heda had this to say about it, “The trip on the train was the worst thing about it all for most of the girls. During that hour we became so chilled that when we finally reached our destination, we fell rather than stepped off the train. It took us half the day to warm up a little. But I loved those trips” (Kovaly 12). She then continues to describe the train ride as an opportunity for her to appreciate the beauties of the countryside. I can just imagine the first trip Heda took on this train. I can imagine her sitting on one of those long, wooden benches on the flatcar waiting nervously to see what her destination was to bring her. I can imagine that little bird begin to flutter in her chest as she, for the first time, came upon that gorgeous scenery with which she describe so beautifully, “The sun was already rising and, since there was always a thick fog hugging the ground, the sun’s rays broke through it and colored the mist a variety of deep pinks, an orange, gold and blue” (Kovaly 12). In a time of uncertainty, in a time where she did not know whether this would have been her last train ride or not, that little bird fluttered for her once more and calmed her down, giving her the time to pinpoint a small detail on which she could focus on and find comfort and peace in.

Besides instilling within her hope, Heda’s perception of the small details stopped her from allowing her to be swept up in a collective mindset with the people around her. One of those instances occurred after the Second World War and during the communist transformation of Czechoslovakia. From the beginning of the transformation, Heda took issue with the large mass mentality that Communism need to thrive. She says, “Right from the start, I took a dislike to the word “masses” which jumped out at me from every pamphlet I read” (Kovaly 67). It seems as though Heda’s time spent in the concentration camps, as disturbing as it may seem, helped her avoid falling into the pitfalls of communism that everybody else in the nation eagerly fell into. She specifically took issue with the word “masses,” because for a large portion of her life, she was not an individual but part of a mass of people whose fate was in the hands of a separate, evil-minded mass of people; she, of all people, understood the dangers of mass ideological thought.

The other factor that aided Heda in surviving her stay at several concentration camps, besides the little bird that allowed her to find peace and solidarity when surrounded by chaos and uncertainty, was her naturally positive outlook towards life and her future and her belief that beyond the horizon lies a better life; this was another resource of hope for her. Similarly to how the spontaneity with which the little bird fluttered its wings within her gave her comfort, it also instilled within her hope for a better life in the future; this defines her positive outlook. It was in these spontaneous flutters that would result in her looking forward to the future, “beyond the line of my horizon,” where she would find her indestructible, always triumphant life (Kovaly 5). I can imagine at those point in times when she was in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto and suffering through the communist regime did the little bird begin to flutter and she found herself in a better place. This becomes evident when Heda and a friend of hers begin to plot their escape during the march from Auschwitz, as the Eastern front closed in on the Germans. She says, from the start of this exit march, did she and a friend begin to plot their escape. She says, “Perhaps I would only gain a few days or a few hours, but it would be a freedom that millions of people could not even imagine” (Kovaly 17-18). This is significant because it provides support that Heda looked beyond the horizon of her present life to find comfort in a more peaceful and loving future. She believed that new found freedom, no matter how short, would be better than what she was experiencing at the time. This helped her go on, while others perished. Also, it was in this strong desire for a freer future that kept Heda from falling into the collective mass of the marchers who believed they shared one fate. It was almost as if they were incapable of imagining a life outside of each other. It was in this same realization, to become an individual again, that stopped Heda from following the collective masses into communism.

Czech Spring 1968
Czech Spring 1968

Heda’s belief in a more stable future was the driving force that convinced her that taking part in the Czechoslovakian uprising against the Nazis would not only benefit herself, but the nation as a whole. At one point in her book, Heda describes a familiar sensation that supports the previous claim that in order to build a stable future for herself and her nation, she had to take an active role in constructing it. She says:

And then another familiar sensation took hold of me-that inner bracing of strength we discover when the worst has happened, when we know there is no way out and there can be no help coming from anyone but ourselves. It springs from a source so deeply hidden that we are unaware it exists, but it always comes to the rescue when life bares its fangs and attacks. (Kovaly 108).

This passage is especially significant to this essay because it underlines all of the examples given from the book. This passage describes the results that occur when that little bird begins to flutters it wings, bringing to Heda a mix of hope, originating from a small detail, to hope in a more positive future. So, it was in these hopes did Heda decide that what was best for her and the nation was to eliminate a source of instability and death, the Nazis.

With these two traits clearly defined and supported with examples, it becomes clearer as to how Heda’s strong, independent character was formed and how it supported her during her trials. I believe that she was much stronger than she may have thought, however. She described the little bird as being weak and having a mind of its own, but I believe that it is within these foundations of her character in which the bird existed and thrived. Finding comfort in the small details of a chaotic situation and looking forward to a more optimistic future speaks to the character with who Heda was. She did have an incredibly optimistic outlook on her life, even under the circumstances. And she believed that through all the hate and fury, possible describing the Nazis, Ghettos, camps, and communism love and hope make all these things crumble. Love and hope are the foundations on which Heda’s character revolved around and this helped fuel the little bird inside. At times when she suffered through cold and starvation and through the actions of humanities worst attributes, she became empowered by appreciating the small details of life and the never ending love that humanity thrives on.

Kovaly's little bird
Kovaly's little bird

© 2013 Travis


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    • profile image

      Mitchell Chanelis 

      2 years ago

      My friend Heda Kovaly, author of "Life Under a Cruel Star", suffered as a Jew in Prague under the Nazi "protectorate", as well as under the early post-WWII Communist government of Czechoslovakia. In the mid-1990s, over a drink in Prague, Heda spontaneously offered an assessment of which regime was worse - her suffering under the Nazis (she'd been shipped out to the camps but somehow managed to escape!) or later under the first Communist Czech government in which her husband Rudi was a minister. In the early 1950s, he was summarily condemned and executed as part of the initial purge of Jews from the early Czech Communist government in the infamous Slansky trial.

      Elegant Heda. To look at her you'd think at first glance the lady had not a care in the world; until, that is, you looked into the bottomless pools of her eyes. I could never, or dared even imagine what they had seen. In any case, the woman who'd recently returned to live in her beloved Prague after decades in exile as a librarian at Harvard, coolly said, "many people have asked me over the years which were worse, the Nazis or the Communists? I had to struggle to find an answer but, ultimately, have come to believe that the Communists were worse. With the Nazis you knew where you stood, they wanted to kill you. That was that. The Communists though manipulated your deepest spiritual sentiments and beliefs about what was good for the world; and that if you questioned them at all you were either an enemy of the people or crazy".

      I see a perverse replay of that years ago conversation with Heda in the murky debate about the 'lack of equivalency' between the neo-Nazis and Antifa in Charlottesville. The Nazis are clear about what they stand for; you either agree or disagree. The self-described anti-fascists, though, with their Communist roots in the Weimar Germany of a century ago, are playing a double game. On the one hand, they are putatively against racism; yet see the world entirely through the prism of racial and identity group politics. Antifa has also begun to self-righteously justify their recent calls for violence against those with whom they disagree. Equivalency? Maybe not, but this is a slippery slope.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 

      4 years ago from Chicago

      Fabulous hub. Can hardly wait to read the book.

    • Travis Kaoulla profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Thank you again for your kind and educating words. I published two more articles today about Socialism and Communism. Feel free to read them if you have the time. I will appreciate your opinions and welcome any corrections you have to make if I made any mistakes.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      The Czech republic (Bohemia and Moravia) underwent some of the most horrific occupations in history with both the Nazi and Communist regimes; Slovakia became a satellite state under Tiso. The Jews of both republics were mercilessly persecuted and annihilated. Most of them went to Terezin before they proceded to Auschwitz for eventually extermination. Czechoslovakia was subsequently liberated; however, the new master was communism. More freedoms were lost under communist rule. However in 1968, the Czech rebelled and wanted a more liberal system but that was crushed. In the late 1980s-early 1990s, communism became a thing of the past so a former playright , a political prisoner, became the new post-communist president. Yes, the book was quite harrowing and should be a must read. Great, analytical hub as usual.


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