Tolerance in Two Recitations

The prompt for this paper asks students to compare the cultures of toleration in Heda Margolius Kovály’s Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968 and Ian Burma’s Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance.[1] Assumed in this directive is a definition of tolerance,[2] but exactly what definition that is remains to be interpreted. At one level, tolerance can be read as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” On another level, tolerance can be interpreted as the “capacity to endure pain or hardship.”[3] Because both definitions are equally valid interpretations of tolerance in Kovály’s and Buruma’s book, it makes it difficult (and perhaps detrimental) to read for only one of them. “Read for” is appropriate here because it requires a conscious attempt to recognize the different registers of tolerance in the texts. It is because of this nuance that, for this paper, I have also decided to analyze different registers of tolerance. However, because of the detail inherent in an analysis of this kind, I have decided to focus on only one text—Under a Cruel Star. Rather than a slight to or dodge of Buruma, this decision is a reflection of my belief that analyzing tolerance on two levels in one book is equivalent to analyzing tolerance on one level in two books. Choosing the former method not only allows for a deeper understanding of one text, but it also prevents a superficial understanding of two extremely rich ones. In the end, I hope to show that life in Prague between 1941 and 1968 was one of social intolerance as well as one of individual tolerance (an individual’s ability to withstand pain and hardship).

First, I want to look at the representation of social intolerance in Under A Cruel Star. Social intolerance is present throughout the entire book, but the first major wave of it comes after Kovály escapes from the Germans and returns to Prague to attempt to restart her life. The first person she visits is an old friend named Jenda, who, prior to the deportations, told Kovály, “whatever happens, I shall be your anchor. If you can, send me your messages. Should you be separated, count on meeting again at my place. If anything happens to me, I’ll find a replacement. I’ll never stop waiting for you to come back. You’ll always have somewhere to come back to.”[4] Yet, when Kovály shows up at Jenda’s apartment, he was anything but the anchor he promised to be. As Kovály writes, “I saw that he felt ashamed of himself and guilty, but that his fear was stronger than anything else. All he could think of was the deadly danger that had walked in with me: Was I sure no one had seen me on the stairs? He wanted not to know me, to know nothing about me and live. Live in peace and quiet in the middle of death and deportation.”[5] If I term this social intolerance, some will no doubt object that it is too harsh a reading of Jenda and his actions, but let us remember that tolerance can be defined as sympathy for someone with beliefs and practices that conflict with one’s own. Kovály, who believed Jenda would help her and attempted to practice that belief, represented for Jenda a life in conflict with his own. The resulting fear paralyzed Jenda, as he did not offer help to Kovály or run after her when she left his apartment, realizing as she had that she was not going to find a helping hand in Jenda. In not wanting to know Kovály and “to know nothing about [her] and live,” he was practicing social intolerance, for voicing hatred or disagreement is not the only way to be intolerant. In fact, one could argue that the “silent treatment” is the cruelest form of intolerance because it is an attempt to erase the person with whom you conflict from existence. After all, engagement, even if conflictual, is tacitly an act of tolerance.

Unfortunately, Kovály’s encounter with social intolerance did not end after the particular fears of the Second World War wore off. After her husband Rudolf was arrested in 1952 in connection to his alleged role in conspiring against the state, she once again came up against fierce social intolerance. As Kovály describes it,

By that time, I had become like a leper, to be avoided by anyone who valued his life. Even the most casual encounter with me could arouse suspicion and invite disaster. I could understand that and could bear the situation better than most people in the same situation. The war inured me to it and, besides, I knew that I had no right to expose other people to danger. Why should anyone risk his job or the safety of his family or, perhaps, his freedom, just to talk to me? It is natural for people to think first of those for whom they are responsible. If everyone were a hero, what would courage be worth? And so it was largely without bitterness that I watched people suddenly cross the street when they saw me coming or, if they spotted me too late to cross, avert their eyes. To those few who insisted on continuing their acquaintance with me, I myself would say, “Don’t stop. Don’t talk to me. It makes no sense.”[6]

Although this is a long quote, it needs to be shown in full if we are to get a sense of the full meaning behind what is being said. Because Rudolf was accused of conspiring against the state, he was considered a traitor politically as well as socially. Kovály, by marital association, was also considered a traitor, and, therefore, she was treated “like a leper, to be avoided by anyone who valued his life.” Notwithstanding Rudolph’s probable brush with torture and eventual death, Kovály perhaps suffered a harsher punishment: the shunting of a society with which she had unavoidable contact every day. Because contact with Kovály “could arouse suspicion and invite disaster,” people avoided her and ignored her in the most casual ways and circumstances. Indeed, one could reasonably claim that, given the political and social climate, these people had no choice but to avoid her, lest they too would attract the state’s suspicion and its resulting consequences. But they did have a choice—they just chose to ignore her. They chose the path of intolerance. Fear may have been the cause of this choice, but that doesn’t make it any less intolerant. Even if it can be shown that political intolerance breeds social intolerance, the burden of toleration rests not on fear but on sympathy and indulgence.

At this juncture, I would like to address the second definition of tolerance: the capacity to withstand pain or hardship. You’ll notice that the long paragraph quoted and analyzed above has more to it than examples of social intolerance. Imbedded in it also are expressions of Kovály withstanding hardship. For instance, notice that every description of social intolerance is coupled with an example of Kovály withstanding social intolerance. After comparing herself to a leper, she states, “I could understand that and could bear the situation better than most people in the same situation. The war inured me to it and, besides, I knew that I had no right to expose other people to danger.” From this, we see that Kovály’s experience in concentration camps during the Second World War gave her a high level of tolerance for hardship, specifically the pain that comes with social intolerance. However, we also see what I am going to call her tolerance for intolerance. Kovály “understands” why people are avoiding her, and she asserts “that I had no right to expose other people to danger.” She goes on to ask, “why should anyone risk his job or the safety of his family or, perhaps, his freedom, just to talk to me? It is natural for people to think first of those for whom they are responsible. If everyone were a hero, what would courage be worth?” Kovály, the victim of intolerance, is here practicing tolerance in the manner of our first definition, which is about having sympathy for those with conflicting beliefs and practices. She sympathizes with those who are putting their own lives before hers. Even though their beliefs and practices conflict with hers and, because of sheer numbers, have a greater effect on her than hers has on them, she responds with indulgence. In fact, she was so indulgent that “to those few who insisted on continuing their acquaintance with [her, she herself] would say, ‘Don’t stop. Don’t talk to me. It makes no sense.’” At this point in Kovály’s recollection, the two forms of tolerance—sympathy for views different from one’s own and withstanding hardship—have fused into one. That is, tolerance defined as the “capacity to endure pain or hardship” becomes tolerance defined as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.”

Although there are other examples in Under A Cruel Star of both readings of tolerance, it seems appropriate to end the paper with that last analysis—and even inappropriate to continue beyond it—given that it leaves us with what is perhaps the ultimate lesson of the book: the two registers of tolerance are simply, and perhaps unexpectedly, two sides of the same coin. Social intolerance requires of an individual the ability to with withstand hardship, which can then in turn lead to social tolerance. This is not to suggest that social intolerance is necessary for social tolerance, but rather that social intolerance does not inevitably lead to only more intolerance. There exists a constant tension between tolerance and intolerance in the book, and this tension played itself out in the history of twentieth-century Europe. It even haunts twenty-first-century Europe, as Buruma demonstrates in Murder in Amsterdam. However, although social intolerance remains a specter over Europe, Kovály shows us that social tolerance in such an environment is not only possible but also worthwhile.


[1] Heda Margolius Kovály, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986) and Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[2] Toleration is a more limiting noun than tolerance, so, admittedly, I am taking some creative license here, but I think it is a freeing and therefore, necessary maneuver.

[3] Both definitions of tolerance come from the entry for tolerance (noun) at merriam-webster.com: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tolerance.

[4] Kovály, Under A Cruel Star, 26.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Kovály, 117.

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