The formative experience of my life was the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. I was Jewish and not yet fourteen years old. I could have easily perished in the Holocaust or suffered lasting psychological damage had it not been for my father, who understood the dangers and coped with them better than most others. He had gone through a somewhat similar experience in World War I, which prepared him for what happened in World War II.
When the Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, my father knew exactly what to do. He realized that these were abnormal times and people who followed the normal rules were at risk. He arranged false identities not only for his immediate family but also for a larger circle. He charged a fee, sometimes quite an exorbitant one, to those who could afford it, and helped others for free. I had never seen him work so hard before. That was his finest hour. Both his immediate family and most of those whom he advised or helped managed to survive.
Instead of submitting to our fate we resisted an evil force that was much stronger than we were—yet we prevailed. Not only did we survive, but we managed to help others. This left a lasting mark on me, turning a disaster of unthinkable proportions into an exhilarating adventure.1 That gave me an appetite for taking risk, and under my father’s wise guidance I learned how to cope with it—exploring the limits of the possible but not going beyond them. I relish confronting harsh reality, and I am drawn to tackling seemingly insoluble problems.
I occupy an exceptional position. My success in the financial markets has given me a greater degree of independence than most other people. This obliges me to take stands on controversial issues when others cannot, and taking such positions has itself been a source of satisfaction. In short, my philanthropy has made me happy. What more could one ask for? I do not feel, however, that I have any business imposing my choices on others.
I have made it a principle to pursue my self-interest in my business, subject to legal and ethical limitations, and to be guided by the public interest as a public intellectual and philanthropist. If the two are in conflict, the public interest ought to prevail. I do not hesitate to advocate policies that are in conflict with my business interests. I firmly believe that our democracy would function better if more people adopted this principle. And if they care about a well-functioning democracy, they ought to abide by this principle even if others do not. Just a small number of public-spirited figures could make a big difference.
Over thirty years I have…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.