The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
By Kati Marton
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $27.
My grandmother used to satirically refer to “Die Grossen Ungarischen Jüdischen Übermenschen,” or “The Great Hungarian Jewish Superhumans,” because this subset of Jews were always so relentless in praising their own. But though we rolled our eyes at the bias espoused by some Hungarians, Kati Marton has offered some dazzling proof that at least some of it is deserved.
In “The Great Escape,” Marton chronicles the lives of a core of Hungarian Jews who fled their homeland in the wake of the First World War and achieved success so dazzling that her book’s subtitle —“Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World” — could hardly be called an exaggeration.
Sandor Kellner was born in a Hungarian village and arrived in Budapest at 16. Soon after that, he saw his first silent movie, which changed his life. De-magyarizing his name to Alexander Korda, he made and lost several fortunes. His boundless self-confidence kept him making films in London, Hollywood and then London again.
Robert Capa, whose searing work as a photojournalist during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War made him — even in his lifetime — a legend, set the bar for all who followed, until he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam in 1954. Andre Kertesz, a pensive man who became angry and hateful at the way “America” treated him after his 11 years in Paris, left behind a body of photographic work that still astounds viewers.
Arthur Koestler was an impassioned Zionist until he moved to Palestine in the 1920s; he then found another love: communism. A trip to the Soviet Union in 1933 cured him of that, and during the Spanish Civil War he was imprisoned and told for days on end that he was about to be executed. These experiences led to his novel “Darkness at Noon” (originally published in 1973 by Hutchinson).
Edward Teller, easily the least likable of this Magyar menagerie, not only helped design the hydrogen bomb but also was the godfather of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project. Teller, who saw to it that Robert Oppenheimer would never again receive government clearance to work on sensitive projects, was ostracized by nearly everyone but managed to outlive them all.
Considering the range Marton covers, her mistakes are few: Famed war reporter Martha Gellhorn would have been rather surprised to learn that she was Jewish; Admiral Horthy was, first of all, Miklos, not Nicholas, and while his politics were thuggish and right wing, he was no fascist; and Budapest’s parliament, as over-egged as all three Gabor sisters put together, is not “gothic-baroque,” just neogothic.
Marton finishes her engaging book by showing us that “Die Grossen Ungarischen Jüdischen Übermenschen” did not end with these greats. George Soros, one of the wealthiest men in the world, funds Open Society Foundations, which have done more than any other foundation in the world to open democratic societies, and Andras Grof became Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel. Marton closes with Imre Kertész, whose harrowing novel “Fatelessness” (originally published in 1992 by Northwestern University Press, under the name “Fateless”) won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.
And even they may not be the last. At least 100,000 Jews live in Budapest today. Where Jewish students now make up a high percentage of the country’s best young scientists, there are a good half-dozen novelists producing lively fiction, and young Hungarian Jews are not only big in new-media and software development; they are making their mark as filmmakers, too. They are — we hope — not done with us yet.
Edward Serotta is the director of Centropa.org, an institute specializing in Jewish history and culture in Central Europe.