EXCERPT: 'The Great Escape,' by Kati Marton

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.



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.

Though a pacifist, Einstein well understood the Nazi threat; like Szilard and Wigner, he had left Germany because of Adolf Hitler. So the father of relativity signed a letter, prepared primarily by Szilard, to the Belgian ambassador in Washington, warning the Belgian government that bombs of unimaginable power could be made out of uranium, whose primary source was the Belgian Congo. Then Einstein returned to his dinghy, and the two Hungarians drove back to the city.

Szilard worried that this would not be enough: should they not also alert President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? "We did not know our way around in America," Szilard later recalled. But he knew an investment banker named Alexander Sachs, a friend of the president who did know Washington. After Szilard talked to Sachs, the banker concurred: the president must be told.

So two weeks later, on Sunday, July 30, Szilard returned to Einstein's cottage. Wigner was in California, so Szilard -- who did not know how to drive -- turned to another Hungarian, who owned a 1935 Plymouth: a young physics professor at Columbia University named Edward Teller. (Teller would later joke that he entered history as Leo Szilard's chauffeur.) Together Szilard and his bushy-browed driver extracted a second letter from Einstein. It was probably the most important letter of the twentieth century.

"I believe," the greatest scientist of the century wrote to the most important political leader of the age, "it is my duty to bring to your attention . . . that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable -- though much less certain -- that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.

"The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo.

"In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America." (Emphasis added.)

Szilard believed that such a letter, signed by none other than Albert Einstein, would get immediate attention. But it did not. On September 1, 1939, when Hitler attacked Poland, Einstein's letter lay unread somewhere in FDR's in-box.

Einstein's letter was finally brought directly to FDR's attention by Sachs on October 11, and began the process that would lead to the creation of the Manhattan Project -- the top secret government effort to build the atom bomb. But Roosevelt had no idea that the letter was the work of three Hungarian refugees who were not yet American citizens.

It was altogether fitting that these products of Budapest's Golden Age would stimulate the most momentous scientific-military enterprise of the twentieth century, leading to the Manhattan Project, and, after that, Hiroshima. Szilard, Wigner, and Teller -- these men were just part of a group of Hungarians who, after fleeing fascist Budapest in the 1920s and 1930s, brought their distinctive outlook on life, science, and culture to the United States and Western Europe -- and played immensely important roles in shaping the mid-twentieth-century world. Forced into exile by the rising tide of fascism, they would alter the way we fight and prevent wars, help shape those most modern art forms, photography and the movies, and transform the music we listen to.

This is the tale of some of them -- specifically, four scientists, two photographers, two film directors, and a writer -- who, collectively, helped usher in the nuclear age and the age of the computer, who left us some of our most beloved movies and many of the most enduring images of the violent century they navigated. The currents of twentieth-century history, science, culture, and politics entered them as young men in Budapest, and as they crossed borders and oceans in search of safety, they carried with them only their genius and ideas -- truly they had magic in their pockets.

Who were these men, and where did they come from? Was it simply a coincidence that they were from such a strange little country, with a language incomprehensible to the rest of the world? Or was there something peculiar about that country and that city at that time that created, in so many different fields, so many unusual people?

Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner -- along with another genius from Budapest, John von Neumann -- brought to America more than the physics revolution. Having saved themselves from Hitler, they were determined to alert their new nation to the mounting danger. Buffeted by every political upheaval of the century, the four scientists, and the others in this narrative, were in the vanguard of an early warning system. Working in vastly different fields, they tried to rouse a world still averting its gaze from the gathering storm. As the scientists pushed for the atom bomb, Arthur Koestler was writing Darkness at Noon, the first real exposé of Stalinist brutality to achieve worldwide fame. Michael Curtiz was making Casablanca, as much a call to anti-fascist arms as it is a romance. Robert Capa was making an immortal photographic record of the helpless victims of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's indiscriminate aerial bombs, photographs to stand alongside Pablo Picasso's Guernica in the field of art as political statement.

This is the chronicle of the remarkable journey of nine men from Budapest to the New World, how they strove and what they learned along the way, and the imprint they made on America and the world.

Some of the nine -- Robert Capa and Edward Teller -- are famous, others less so, but of equal consequence. John von Neumann, widely believed by his contemporaries to be the smartest of them all, pioneered the electronic computer and invented Game Theory. Andre Kertesz, along with Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, virtually invented modern photojournalism. The names of Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda may be less well known today, but their work is immortal. Curtiz's Casablanca is the most popular romantic film of all time. Korda, whose life story is more fanciful than any Hollywood fabrication, also left enduring movies; in 1994 the New York Times called Korda's The Third Man "one of the finest films ever made," a widely held judgment. Arthur Koestler is on every list of the twentieth century's greatest political writers.

They had in common, first of all, a time and a place. They were members of the same generation, roughly spanning the last decade of the nineteenth century until the outbreak of World War I. All they would become started in the city of their birth, Budapest. They were by no means unique in Budapest in its brief Golden Age; gifted men, and transforming figures, but these nine were but the tip of an iceberg of talent that came out of Budapest. Over a dozen Nobel Prize winners emerged from roughly the same generation of Hungarians. (There is some dispute as to their numbers, twelve to eighteen, depending on whether one counts areas of the country the Treaty of Trianon stripped away in 1920.) Among them were George de Hevesy, John Polanyi, and George Olah, awarded Nobel Prizes in chemistry; Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Georg von Bekesy, awarded Nobel Prizes in medicine; Dennis Gabor and Philipp Lenard, who joined Eugene Wigner in winning the physics Nobel; and in economics, John Harsanyi, who won a Nobel for his work in Game Theory, the field pioneered by von Neumann, whose early death probably denied him his own Nobel. There were others -- not all of them Nobel laureates. Marcel Breuer designed his famous chair and other Bauhaus masterpieces, as well as the Whitney Museum in New York. Bela Bartok's disturbing harmonies started in Budapest and reached the world. For decades, Bartok's students, as well as other products of Budapest's Franz Liszt Academy, among them Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, and Antal Dorati, created the sound of the world's great orchestras.

Of course, many other places have spurred such creative energy: Athens, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Edinburgh, New York have all had their day -- some more than once. In each case a certain set of unique circumstances combined to create a moment of special creativity. But what makes this moment dramatically different is that the geniuses of Budapest had to leave their homeland to achieve greatness. One can only wonder how much more potential was trapped inside the city as its brief moment of magic and opportunity turned into a fascist hell in 1944. But before all that -- before Admiral Nicholas Horthy, Europe's first proto-fascist, before Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann, before the communist leader Bela Kun -- Budapest between 1890 and 1918 was relatively secure, tolerant of new people and ideas and bursting with civic pride. It was also a secular city.

It is important to note that the men who make up this narrative were all double outsiders once they left their native land. They were not only from a small, linguistically impenetrable, landlocked country, they were also Jews. (One could argue that, in fact, they were even triple outsiders, since they were all nonobservant Jews whose families had consciously rejected the shtetl for the modern, secular, cosmopolitan world that, briefly, lay glistening in front of them.)

The nine men who are the subject of The Great Escape were Jews in a city that briefly welcomed and encouraged their ambition. Unlike the Jews of Russia and Romania, Budapest Jews were integrated into the city's great academic and cultural -- though not its political -- institutions. Budapest, like New York, Paris, and Berlin, became a magnet for the brightest from all over the region. The multiethnic cauldron of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its closing years helped to ignite creative explosions in both Budapest and Vienna. It is no accident that another secular Jew, Theodor Herzl, born in Budapest in similar circumstances only a few years earlier, created modern Zionism out of the ferment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

All nine were big thinkers, with big dreams. The small, the political, or the bureaucratic were neither open nor appealing to them. It was no accident that they excelled in new fields where they could break new ground, and where official or institutional support was less important than talent: mathematics, physics, literature, photography, and film. Their forefathers had lived on the margins, but this generation believed they could change the world, just as their world had itself changed.

Then, just as most of them were reaching manhood -- though the youngest, Robert Capa, was still a boy -- in the wake of the catastrophic First World War, these daring young men collided with the realities of hate and violence. Creative life could not flourish in a climate of fear. First wearing the guise of nationalism and then murderous racism, fear marched into Budapest in the 1920s and 1930s. Jolted out of the comfort of their lives, they would never again feel entirely secure; fame and fortune would not alter that condition. Their westward journey took them to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, New York, and, for some, Hollywood -- through a boiling continent and beyond. They reinvented themselves and assimilated cultures as they moved west. But the city of their youth, pulsing with energy and in love with the new, and, however briefly, secure but not smug, marked them for life.

When it came to politics, they were as sensitive as burn victims. All nine had experienced how quickly things can change. Some, particularly Korda, Capa, and von Neumann, masked their insecurity better than the others. But as Sir Georg Solti, one of the most celebrated conductors of our time, wrote of his childhood in post-World War I Budapest: "Since that time, I have never been able to rid myself of the fear of anyone wearing a military or police uniform, or even a customs office uniform, because in Hungary uniforms always meant persecution in one form or another." Such feelings were buried deep within all the men in this narrative.

Why has the tale of this remarkable Hungarian diaspora not been told in this manner before? The answer is twofold: language and history. The Hungarian language, my mother tongue, is virtually impenetrable -- a member of the Finno-Ugric family, but not really similar to other European languages -- and limits outside research into the culture and the people. And history -- the Cold War and the Soviet occupation, which shut Hungary and her neighbors off from the West -- turned Mitteleuropa into a frozen, uniformly gray mass. By 1989, when the Iron Curtain crumbled, this generation had dispersed. Budapest, emerging from almost half a century of Soviet rule, its World War II scars still painfully apparent, was barely recognizable. The world had moved on -- and so had they.

The nine men who form this narrative also played a part by obscuring their own history. While the United States had welcomed them, their own country had shunned them -- or tried to exterminate them. In exile they restyled themselves into urbane Europeans and turned their back on a homeland tearing itself apart. Why look back? The past was a minefield. Their blazing triumph enabled them to obscure their Budapest origins: von Neumann transformed into the genius of German physics; Kertesz became Andre of Paris; Capa "The World's Greatest War Photographer"; Korda, Sir Alexander, friend to Sir Winston Churchill; Koestler, the continent's mournful prophet of totalitarianism; and so on. But, as we shall see, there was an emotional cost to their skillful reinvention.

A personal word is necessary: this tale is in my bloodstream. Like the cast of The Great Escape, my family, too, rode the great crest of Budapest's golden years. My great-grandfather, Maurice Mandl, born in 1848, the year revolution swept Europe, was the son of the chief rabbi of Dobris, Bohemia. German was his mother tongue, Franz Joseph his emperor. In his early twenties he jumped onto a rickety train to Budapest. Maurice soon learned Hungarian and prospered as an accountant in the boomtown of Budapest. His rabbi father traveled from Bohemia to Budapest only once, in 1876, to officiate at Maurice's wedding in the great synagogue that still sits -- recently restored -- on Dohany Street. Maurice and his wife, Tekla, had six children, among them, in the fashion of the newly emerging, emancipated, and primarily secular Hungarian Jews, a lawyer, an engineer, a teacher, and a grain merchant (my grandfather).

In 1900, like many other aspiring Jews in Hungary, the family Magyarized its name to Marton, and entered the city's prosperous middle class. Great-grandfather Maurice's apartment was in the fashionable Leopoldtown area, near the Parliament, overlooking the Danube. Maurice's sons were decorated in the First World War, which Europeans call, without irony, the Great War. Less than thirty years later, his grandsons would not be allowed to wear their country's uniform nor bear arms, but were instead sent off to forced labor on the Russian Front. Unlike the central figures in this book, the Martons stayed through the Nazi terror -- which they miraculously survived. Though my father, Endre, was called up by the Nazis for forced labor on the Eastern Front, he managed to escape and from then on he and my mother, Ilona, were hidden by Christian friends. My maternal grandparents were not so lucky. Living in a northeastern city called Miskolc, they were among the first Jews rounded up by Adolf Eichmann and his Hungarian allies and forced on an Auschwitz-bound transport. The last word my mother ever had from them was a postcard slipped through the crack of a cattle car headed for Auschwitz. My mother, a historian, and my father, an economist, became journalists for the two American wire services, United Press and Associated Press, after the war, as the communists seized Hungary. Early in 1955, they were arrested by the communists and convicted of being spies for a country neither of them had set foot in, the United States of America. Their story attracted international attention and made the front page of the New York Times. For nearly two years, while my parents were incarcerated in Budapest's maximum-security Fo Street prison, my sister and I were placed in the care of strangers.

My parents were released from prison in the brief thaw just prior to the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution in October 1956, and resumed their reporting for the Associated Press and the United Press. When the Soviet forces, which had briefly withdrawn from Budapest in the face of a national uprising, returned to crush the revolt, my father sent the last cable from Budapest, alerting the world that Soviet tanks and troops were rolling toward the capital. Then all communications with the outside world were cut. (These are among my most enduring childhood memories.) Again in danger of arrest for their coverage of the revolt, my parents and my sister and I were granted asylum in the American embassy in Budapest, along with the world-famous cardinal, Josef Mindszenty, who, I remember clearly, blessed us each night. (Not only did the cardinal think we were good little Catholic girls, so did we; our parents had raised us as Catholics, and never told us our true family history.) In early 1957, a brave American diplomat named Tom Rogers drove us across the Austria-Hungary frontier to freedom -- and exile. Today, only one of Maurice Mandl's offspring remains in Budapest, my father's first cousin, my aunt Tekla, now in her eighties, who, along with my mother's younger sister, Magda, are my only surviving relatives left in Budapest.

This family saga partly accounts for this book, which fills in a missing chapter in the history of the tumultuous twentieth century. These nine people seemed very familiar to me; I felt I almost knew them personally. Their anxiety -- born of their own history and their fear that peace cannot last -- resonated inside me. As I did research about Leo Szilard, who always kept two packed bags with him in case he had to flee again, I thought of my mother; forty years after she fled Hungary for the security of the United States, she still answered the telephone with a somewhat tremulous "Hello?" as if braced for bad news.

In addition to being insecure, driven, and lonely once they fled Budapest, most of the nine characters in The Great Escape were hedonists with a love of the good things in life, for whom appearances were all-important. (Leo Szilard, in his rumpled raincoat, is the sole exception.) My father once told me if he ever wrote a novel, it would be about Andre Kertesz's older brother, Imre. Why? I asked, when Andre is the one who achieved so much. "Imre," my father said, "interested me more. In the 1930s, I used to see him at my parents' open house on Sundays. The anti-Semitic laws were already in effect and Kertesz had lost his job. But he always looked like a million dollars." That, to me, summed up the Hungarian credo, by which my parents lived: whatever hand life deals you, put a good face on it and the rest will follow. This credo was the impulse behind Alexander Korda, who lived in the grandest hotels when he could least afford them, Robert Capa, who bought an elegant Burberry raincoat for the Normandy invasion, and John von Neumann, who wore a three-piece suit and tie for a mule ride down the Grand Canyon. Young Arthur Koestler was the only student at his German boarding school to wear an elegant Eton suit. Later, with his precisely parted hair and his soft Harris tweeds, Koestler was among Europe's most dapper intellectuals. In a similar vein, I recall my mother, while awaiting her arrest by the Hungarian secret police (she had been warned), carefully choosing what she would wear to prison. Comfort was important, but style, partly as a manifestation of defiance, played an equal part in her choice of a Scottish tartan skirt for her year in a communist cell.

Like the nine men profiled here, my parents (and I, to a lesser extent) were touched by a sense of perpetual exile, of never quite belonging, of having been reinvented in the New World, without escaping the burdens of the Old. Something sad and distant hung over them, the legacy perhaps of having once been marked for death by their own people. That, too, was part of their inheritance.

Millions of other people were displaced by the wars of the last century. But for Hungarians, exile was magnified by linguistic and cultural isolation. "Hungarians," Arthur Koestler wrote, "are the only people in Europe without racial and 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."

For Hungarian Jews the loss of their Budapest ran even deeper. The pain was sharpened by the speed with which they had gained -- and lost -- their Zion on the Danube. It happened, after all, in less than forty years. Describing the mood in Budapest at the time of her wedding day on April 25, 1897, Leo Szilard's mother, Tekla, reflected the boundless optimism of the age and the opportunity it was suddenly providing Jews. "The city was growing by leaps and bounds. I felt as if this were all my progress, my development."

Yet by 1945, Budapest, which the (non-Jewish) Hungarian poet Endre Ady described as "built by the Jews for the rest of us," was no more -- smashed by World War II, its spirit snuffed out earlier by the fascists -- and about to disappear inside the Soviet empire for another forty years.

I had a sense of this longing for what was irretrievably lost during an interview with a great chronicler of the Hungarian Holocaust, Randolph Braham. As we began, sitting in my New York apartment as the sun set, Professor Braham, eighty years old, whose own family had been destroyed by Hungarian fascists, closed his eyes. He had retreated to a faraway place. After some moments of silence, he switched to our mother tongue, "Meg nyilnak a kertben a nyari viragok..." recalling a well-loved poem by Sandor Petofi, a favorite revolutionary-romantic bard. "The summer flowers are still in bloom in the garden..."

I loved my hometown as a child, but it was not their Budapest, that glittering, elegant metropolis on a hill, which was as remote from the Stalinist gray city of my mid-1950s childhood as the Emerald City of Oz. But it came alive to me through the eyes, the letters, the faded old photographs of that era, and I could imagine -- and share -- the excitement of those faraway days. It is in that showy place, over a century ago, that this chronicle begins.

Copyright © 2006 by Kati Marton