EXCERPT: 'The Great Escape,' by Kati Marton

ByABC News via logo
October 18, 2006, 1:11 PM

Oct. 19, 2006 — -- 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 POCKETSOn 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 --