Heda Kovály and Jan Wiener were born in September 1919 and May 1920 respectively, and have just died within a few days of one another. Both had their lives determined by the fact that they were Czech and Jewish.
Heda Kovály was deported to the Lodz ghetto and then Auschwitz. In the closing days of the war, she escaped from a forced march of women prisoners to Bergen-Belsen. When she returned to what had been her home in the Czech countryside, the farmer said, “So you’ve come back? Oh no. That’s all we’ve needed,” and shut the door in her face. Her husband, Rudolf Margolious, was a victim of Stalin’s final campaign against Jews. One of the dozen Jews accused of being enemies of the people in the so-called Slansky show trial in 1952, Margolious was hanged. Only when the Red Army invaded Prague in 1968 was Heda Kovály able to escape. She had just $20 with her.
Jan Wiener found the classroom in his school in Prague divided into benches marked for Jews and Gentiles. He and his father escaped into Yugoslavia. As the Germans invaded that country, his father decided to commit suicide, and invited him to do so too, adding that he would feel no resentment if he refused. After this harrowing moment, Jan Wiener managed to escape to Britain, where he flew as a pilot in the Czech squadron of Bomber Command. He returned to Prague wearing his Royal Air Force uniform. In due course the Communists sentenced him to five years of hard labor.
These two human beings have several features in common. What they suffered was unbearable yet not at all exceptional. Both wrote books to bear witness to what they had gone through. Both show how greatness consists in remaining yourself when the majority of those around you have become animals. Their heroism lay in being normal. Finally, both ended up living in Massachusetts, which may well be all you need to know today about Europe and the United States.