Pro-Nazi Hungary’s loss was free world’s gain
The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
Sidebar Excerpt: Being Jewish was the problem
The Great Escape is the story of nine Hungarian Jews who survived the pro-Nazi Horthy government on the eve of World War II, and went on to shape the science and culture of the 20th century.
The theme that links Kati Marton’s narrative brings to mind a line from the The Third Man, a classic film produced by Alexander Korda (ne Sandor Kellner), one of the subjects in this fascinating book. The main character, Harry Lime, proclaims, “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy, and they produced the cuckoo clock.”
Indeed, as this book explains, Hungary’s loss was the free world’s gain, as the Nazi terror spread throughout Europe, forcing Jews of enormous achievement, in general, and Hungarian Jews, in particular, to seek refuge in America or Great Britain. This story is beautifully told by Marton, who was born in Budapest and escaped to the United States with her parents after the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956. The granddaughter of a rabbi, Marton is an accomplished author, journalist, and prize-winning correspondent for ABC News and National Public Radio. Unlike the central figures in her book, Marton and her parents stayed in Hungary through the Nazi years, which they miraculously survived.
World War II was the catalyst that afforded each of Marton’s subjects the opportunity to make enormous contributions to the fields they specialized in. Hungarian scientists like Edward Teller, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Wigner ushered in the nuclear age when, in 1939, they alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the possibility that the Nazis could develop an atomic bomb if the United States did not act immediately. Had it not been for Hitler’s anti-Semitism, which led to the exodus of Jewish physicists from Europe, the Nazis might have won the war. Frightened by the prospect of a Nazi-produced bomb, physicists and mathematicians like Teller, Szilard, Wigner, and Neumann eagerly volunteered for the Manhattan Project, which subsequently developed the A-bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Although not as well-known as some of the others, Neumann, one of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, invented Game Theory, a field that would later change strategic thinking and military doctrine during the Cold War. Game Theory applies statistical logic to the choice of strategies as in a game. In the United States, Game Theory became a serious branch of mathematics in which self-interest determines every decision. Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, became a major figure in American popular culture as the model for Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Toward the end of his life, this refugee from Nazism received the Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan.
Michael Curtiz may not be a familiar name but he was the director of three of mid-century Hollywood’s most memorable films: Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mildred Pierce, among many others. In the late 1930s, as life became ever more precarious for Hungarian Jewry under the Horthy regime, Curtiz, born Mihaly Kaminar, the son of an Orthodox Jew, attempted to bring his family to the United States. He was able to rescue his mother but his sister, her husband, and their three children would eventually be deported to Auschwitz.
The rest of the nine famous Hungarian Jews who shaped our culture, as profiled in The Great Escape, are Robert Capa (Endre Freidmann), who became one of the world’s most famous photographers. He revolutionized his craft by creating photos of war that earned him praise as the “the greatest war photographer in the world.” Marton credits him, and another Hungarian Jew, Andre Kertesz, with virtually inventing modern photography.
Perhaps the best known of Marton’s Budapest Jews is Arthur Koestler, best known for his classic expose of Stalinist Russia, Darkness at Noon. Marton notes that although Koestler is widely remembered for his opposition to fascism and Stalinism, he was also critical of the United States for its apathy toward the fate of European Jewry. At the height of the unfolding Holocaust, Koestler wrote that the Nazi murder of the Jews was “the greatest mass killing in recorded history, and it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch. But nine of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believed that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and they did not believe a word of it.”
Marton concludes her consistently interesting book by bringing up to date the story of three members of the next generation of Budapest exiles: Andy Grove, the founder of Intel; George Soros, the financier and philanthropist; and Imre Kertesz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002 and whose novel Fateless was the basis for one of the most controversial films dealing with the Holocaust.
The Great Escape is a book well worth reading and an invaluable introduction to Budapest’s brief Golden Age, whose end began when anti-Semitism became the official policy of Hungary and concluded with the deportation of its Jews to Auschwitz in 1944.
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