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."