The great escape, revisited

It is unbearably sad to try to imagine the agony your parents have endured.

By ELAINE MARGOLIN
November 9, 2006 09:06
3 minute read.
escape book 88 298

escape book 88 298. (photo credit: )

 
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The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler And Changed The World By Kati Marton Simon & Schuster 228 pages It is unbearably sad to try to imagine the agony your parents have endured, especially if you have always been taught by your mother to put a good face on things, keep your chin up and never let anyone see you unmasked. But Hungarian-born author Kati Marton no longer feels compelled to maintain a fa ade, and after recently losing both of her parents, feels free to explore their sorrow and her own about the once glorious Budapest in which they lived. In her compelling book, The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler And Changed The World, about nine Jewish Hungarian migr s who fled Hitler and went on to accomplish extraordinary feats in science, photography, filmmaking and literature, she begins by exploring her own traumatic Hungarian heritage. Marton's parents miraculously survived the Nazi horror in Hungary by hiding with Christian friends in Budapest. Her maternal grandparents were killed at Auschwitz. After Hitler's defeat, her parents worked as journalists for the Associated Press until they were arrested by the Communists and imprisoned for two years while young Kati and her sister were put in the care of strangers. Just prior to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when thousands filled the streets protesting the Soviet occupation, her parents were released and managed to escape to America. Marton was raised as a Catholic and was unaware as a child of her Jewish heritage. Marton writes about a group of men who were members of the generation that spanned the last decade of the 19th century until the outbreak of World War I. Budapest between 1890 and 1918 was a relatively safe haven for the Jews who flocked there. Although she never met any of the men she discusses, she explains, "I felt like I knew them personally. Their anxiety - born of their own history and their fear that peace cannot last - resonated inside me." Marton brings to life the artistry of Andre Kertesz's photographs, which took quiet notice of the vulnerable moments of daily life. She probes deeply into the restless and turbulent soul of Arthur Koestler, whose brilliant novel, Darkness at Noon, shattered any lingering romantic notions about communism. She examines the brutal honesty of Robert Capa's photography that showed the violence of war upon its victims' faces. She studies the work of filmmakers Alex Korda and Michael Curtiz, whose masterpiece, Casablanca, was based on the memories he cherished of caf life in Budapest. And finally, she uncovers the dramatic historic role physicists Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner played in convincing Albert Einstein to persuade Franklin Delano Roosevelt to move more quickly toward the Manhattan project in order to create a nuclear bomb so that it was ready to be used in 1945 to end the war. Although the Budapest of their youth had been destroyed, most of the men drew comfort from remembering an earlier time when the city seemed magical; when Budapest was filled with cafes, music, theater, opera and thousands of Jews full of passionate energy and idealism. Within a few short decades, that would change. Only one in 20 Jews survived Hitler's assault and most of them were murdered in the last months of the war. Marton's compelling narrative zigzags in and out of their lives throughout the book, tying the men together and disbanding them, eerily, perhaps unconsciously, mimicking the fragmented futures they would face as exiles forced to run for their lives. Marton's book forces the reader to consider the long-term effects of longing and loss. All of the men she writes about seem to suffer from a pervasive sense of gloom for a world forever lost. It somehow seems fitting that most of them found solace in creative acts of silent contemplation; behind a camera or a movie projector, or alone writing. Shortly before Curtiz's death, he wrote to an old friend about his longing for Budapest, admitting, "A few days ago I was walking the streets of Hollywood, when all of a sudden it seemed as if the palm tree-lined pavement slid from under my feet and I was walking around the deck of a huge ship gliding toward Hungary. I wonder why it is that after so many years in America I still long for home? Is it hopeless for me to be buried there? "I know that death is the same everywhere and the grave is the destination of all philosophies. The only difference may be that while in Hollywood palm trees watch over graves, in Budapest, a weeping willow would greet the new arrival. If I could leave the palm trees, alive or dead, I would choose the humble willow."

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