BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Great Escape’ Tells Thrilling Story of Nine Hungarian Jews Who Changed the World

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen 

Note: This review ran on another site in 2006. I’m reprinting it here because of my review of “The Unquiet American”, a book about Kati Marton’s husband, Richard Holbrooke. Both Kati and Richard are wonderful writers and deserve wider recognition.
Along with my continued amazement at the evil and stupidity that is inherent in so much of the human species, I’m also constantly inspired by the survival of talented individuals in the wake of the evil that men do to each other so routinely.

I experienced both feelings — amazement and inspiration — during my reading of Kati Marton’s “The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World” (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $27.00, illustrations, map, index, bibliography), a wonderfully written and thoroughly readable account of nine men who fled Europe and enriched the U.S. — and in the case of two of them, Arthur Koestler and Alexander Korda — Great Britain.

Herself a native Hungarian whose journalist parents fled Hungary after the 1956 failed attempt to throw off the Soviet-sponsored dictatorship, journalist and best-selling author Marton displays obvious affection for the nine men who were outsiders both because of their Jewish heritage and their Hungarian nationality.

Marton, whose first language is Hungarian, notes that Hungarians speak a language totally unrelated to the other languages of Europe; it’s almost like the Navajo code-talkers and is thoroughly incomprehensible to speakers of other languages.

One of the many amusing anecdotes in “The Great Escape” tells of a Hollywood party where famed director Otto Preminger, himself a Jewish refugee from Austria, was moved by the conversation of a group of Hungarian movie industry figures speaking in Hungarian to say: “Come on…we’re in America. So talk German.”

Marton doesn’t say whether or not the party, hosted by Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox included as a guest Michael Curtiz — born Mihaly Kaminer — one of the nine men in the book and the legendary director of “Casablanca.” One thing for certain, talented Europeans – including many Hungarians — were attracted to Hollywood, as they were to Berlin’s famous UFA studio before the Nazis took over in 1933.

Among the many Hollywood Hungarians were mogul Adolph Zukor of Paramount, Paul Lukas, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Curtiz himself and many more – all gifts to the U.S. from what British historian Mark Mazower calls the “Dark Continent” (and he doesn’t mean Africa).

Marton’s talented group, who were part of the brief golden age of Budapest – an era that lasted only a few decades — included Curtiz, Koestler (“Darkness at Noon,” “The Thirteenth Tribe”), producer/director entrepreneur Alexander Korda (“The Third Man,” among many other films); legendary photographers Andre Kertesz and Robert Capa and four scientists who changed the world: Johnny van Neumann, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard.

To varying degrees, the nine longed for the Budapest that briefly thrived as a cultural mecca before home-grown fascism – the Arrow Cross movement — anti-Semitism to a far greater degree than existed in the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire and Nazism destroyed the town as a cultural center.

Koestler, whose birth centennial I commented on in 2005 and who is one of my favorite anti-communist writers, probably longed for the city the least, at least outwardly. He was a wanderer who even spent time in the U.S., briefly, before settling in London.

Korda, knighted in 1942 for his contributions to the British film industry – which he revived – tried living in Hollywood, but he felt most at home in Britain, where he was lionized and honored. One of his wives was the celebrated actress Merle Oberon and he discovered Scarlett O’Hara – English stage ingénue Vivien Leigh – for David O. Selznick’s “Gone With The Wind.” His nephew, Michael Korda, has chronicled his flamboyant family in novels and memoirs.

Capa, who reinvented himself as a documentary/war photographer with his outstanding coverage of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and World War II — including perhaps the most famous D-Day image — wasn’t one to long for the past, Marton says. He was always seeking the next great conflict to cover and he died in Indochina in 1954, covering the conflict that the French fought before the U.S. was involved.

Capa is a legend among photographers more than a half century after his death for helping found Magnum in 1947, which he said allowed photographers to exploit themselves rather than being exploited by publishers.

Marton, in the introduction to this endlessly enjoyable book, gives some background of her family, assimilated Jews who managed to survive the fascist and Nazi terror, except for her maternal grandparents who were rounded up by Adolf Eichman and his Hungarian allies and exterminated in Auschwitz.

Marton’s journalist parents were jailed by the communist regime in the 1950s and, upon their release in 1956, were granted asylum in the American Embassy, along with Kati Marton and her sister. Like most of the nine men she describes, they found a new life in the U.S. Marton was raised a Roman Catholic and didn’t learn of her Jewish roots until her young girlhood in the U.S.

The four scientists were part of the U.S. effort to create an atomic bomb, the famed Manhattan Project. Szilard and Wigner travel to the end of Long Island to alert Albert Einstein of the German efforts to create a nuclear bomb. This meeting led to Einstein’s famous letter to President Franklin Roosevelt and the creation of the Manhattan Project, under the overall leadership of U.S. Army Gen. Leslie Groves and headed by the brilliant New York-born, German-educated physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer at Las Alamos, NM.

Marton says that Groves favored von Neumann, not even thinking of him as a Jew! Teller later became a bitter enemy of Oppenheimer over the security clearance flap of the mid1950s that involved Charleston, WV native Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Von Neumann was a world class mathematician who was one of the fathers of the digital computer through his invention of programming. Computers of the primitive sort that existed in the 1940s were vital in the Manhattan Project, Marton relates.

In an epilogue, Marton briefly tells of the exodus of a second group of Hungarian Jews, financier and philanthropist George Soros, Intel founder Andy Grove and 2002 Nobel Laureate Imre Kertesz, no relation to Andre, who told the author that Hungarians were embarrassed by his “obsession” with the Holocaust. Born in 1929, Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz at age 15 – giving him a good reason, in my opinion, to be “obsessed” with the death factory in Poland. Ironically enough, today, after leaving Hungary, he is an honored figure in Berlin!

Perhaps Koestler sums it up best — Marton includes the quote at the beginning of her book: “Hungarians are the only people in Europe without racial or linguistic relatives in Europe, therefore they are the loneliest on this continent, This…perhaps explains the peculiar intensity of their existence….Hopeless solitude feeds their creativity, their desire for achieving….to be Hungarian is a collective neurosis.”

Written by a journalist who has also written a novel, “An American Woman,” “The Great Escape” is a magnificent adventure story that is on my short list for book awards.

Publisher’s web site: www.simonsays.com

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