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).