EXCERPT: 'The Great Escape,' by Kati Marton

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

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