In the new book "The Great Escape," author Kati Marton tells the story of nine Jewish men who fled Budapest, Hungary, during the Nazi takeover and went on to become hugely influential figures in 20th century history. The group of four scientists, two photographers, two film directors and a writer include Edward Teller, who developed the first hydrogen bomb; John von Neumann, a computer pioneer; Robert Capa, who was considered the greatest war photographer ever; Arthur Koestler, author of "Darkness at Noon"; and Michael Curtiz, who directed "Casablanca." The following is an excerpt from the book.
MAGIC IN THEIR POCKETS
On a muggy day in July of 1939, two young physicists got into a blue Dodge coupé, crossed the Triborough Bridge, and drove past the futuristic World's Fair pavilion, passing fruit stands, vineyards, and modest farmhouses along Route 25, much of which was still unpaved, looking for the world's most famous scientist, Albert Einstein, who was spending the summer on Long Island. Their trip, and a second shortly thereafter, would have historic consequences.
Inside the car, which was his, Eugene Wigner, wispy-voiced and as unprepossessing as a small-town pharmacist, listened patiently to the intense, curly-haired Leo Szilard. Wigner always let his friend, whom he called "The General," think he was in charge, but Wigner's piercing eyes, hidden behind steel-rimmed glasses, missed nothing. As they drove, they argued in their native tongue, Hungarian, about what they would say to the great man.
Deep in a typically heated conversation, the two Hungarians got lost. For two hours they drove around the South Shore; Einstein's retreat, however, was in Peconic, on the North. Finally, they found Peconic, but the roads and gray shingle houses all looked identical to the pudgy Szilard, sweaty in his gray wool suit. Agitated, he began to think that fate might be against their bold step. The cooler Wigner calmed him down. "Let's just ask somebody where Einstein lives," he suggested. "Everybody knows who Einstein is." Finally, a boy of about seven pointed his fishing rod toward a one-story house with a screened front porch.
The sixty-year-old Einstein welcomed his visitors, old friends from Berlin days, wearing a white undershirt and rolled-up trousers. He had spent the morning sailing. Szilard and Wigner now switched to German and went straight to the point; they were in no mood for small talk. Einstein was aware of recent experiments in Germany suggesting that if neutrons bombarded uranium a nuclear chain reaction could be created. But the second part of the Hungarians' message was news to Einstein: that a nuclear chain reaction could lead to incredibly powerful bombs -- atomic bombs! Shaking his famous white mane, Einstein said, "Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht" -- I had not thought of that at all. But Einstein's former colleagues at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, Szilard warned, appeared to be closing in on the discovery. Until that moment, Einstein, the man whose theories had launched the revolution in physics, had not believed that atomic energy would be liberated "in my lifetime." Now he saw how his famous equation of 1905, E=mc2, might apply to the explosive release of energy from mass, using uranium bombs.