Heroes from Hungary

During the 1930s a story was told about a sign outside the entrance to a Hollywood film studio: “It is not enough to be a Hungarian; one must also have talent.” Another story was about a meeting of top US atomic scientists at which, when Enrico Fermi has stepped out of the room, the others sigh with relief: “Now, at last, we can speak Hungarian.” Much heard at the time was the joke: “How do you recognize a Hungarian? He enters a revolving door behind you, but leaves ahead of you.”

The Hungarian historian Tibor Frank has devoted five hundred pages of engrossing stories and learned analysis to a collective portrait of the most talented and most successful émigré Hungarians. Kati Marton’s book, an often charming and just as often heartbreaking report on her childhood in Budapest, combined with a biography of her parents, also has much to say about Hungarian geniuses. Moreover, Marton’s earlier book The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World does for nine distinguished Hungarians what Frank is doing for hundreds.

Marton’s nine Jews include four nuclear scientists, two photographers, two film directors, and a writer. What both Marton and Frank demonstrate is that such Hungarians as the scientists Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller, the biochemist and sociologist Michael Polanyi, the photographer Robert Capa, the writer Arthur Koestler, and others have together altered the ways we think, act, and work. And unlike many of their predecessors, the two authors do not shy away from admitting that, with very few exceptions, the world-famous Hungarians they discuss, including mathematicians, physicists, photographers, architects, musicians, conductors, comedians, film directors, and courageous journalists, such as Kati Marton’s parents, were Jews by religion, or at least converts of Jewish origin.

The question thus arises whether the books being reviewed here are about famous Hungarians or about talented Jews who considered themselves Hungarians—sometimes over the violent objection of their non-Jewish compatriots. Indeed, the ethnic and national identity of Theodore von Kármán, Karl Polanyi, Karl Mannheim, Nicholas Lord Kaldor of Newnham, Eugene Ormandy, Sir Georg Solti, Joseph Szigeti, Antal Dorati, George Szell, Fritz Reiner, Ferenc Molnár, Joe Pasternak, Sir Alexander Korda, Michael Curtiz, Brassaï, André Kertész, Marcel Breuer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and hundreds of other illustrious expatriates presented a dilemma to anti-Semitic and rightist Hungarians before and during World War II and, to a lesser extent, to Hungarian Communists after the war.

Ironically, too many Hungarians who like to boast of the numerous Hungarian geniuses also insist that to be a Jew is a question not of religion but of race, and that, therefore, the Jews from Hungary are not really Hungarians. Yet there were also many Hungarians who befriended and defended their Jewish compatriots or ex-compatriots. As for the émigré Jews, they proved their attachment to the home country by becoming the main sponsors of Hungarian cultural events in the US and elsewhere and by their predilection for …

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