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Heroes from Hungary

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This notice and these photographs of Kati Marton’s parents were distributed by the AP wire service on July 9, 1955. They appear in her book Enemies of the People.

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.1

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.2 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 consorting with one another while claiming to have become thoroughly cosmopolitan.

The key to this fascinating situation lies in history. Jews had long been living in the area of what is today Hungary when the conquering Magyar tribes arrived from the east in the ninth century; but they gradually became integrated into Hungarian society only in the nineteenth century as part of a nationwide drive for modernization. Because the members of the landowning nobility—which was central to the nation’s identity—were loath to engage in commerce and industry, they needed the services of the Jews. And once the ideas of nation and nationality took root during the nineteenth century, the same nobility became painfully aware that Hungarian speakers formed a minority in the country; the majority spoke German, Yiddish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, and other languages. Accordingly, the noble elite fostered the acceptance of the Jews, who combined their economic usefulness with a willingness to become patriots.

Of course, acceptance was a matter of degree; still, no country in Europe was more hospitable to Jewish immigration and assimilation and no country had more enthusiastic support from its Jews than the pre–World War I Hungarian kingdom. One might even say that there existed a tacit agreement between the ruling gentry and the educated Jews for a division of labor in modernizing Hungary. The Jews—as well as many skilled non-Jewish immigrants from Western Europe—would contribute their know-how, dynamism, and diligence; the landowning elite would provide the legislative and administrative assistance necessary for economic expansion.

The resulting success of Jews, and of immigrants, was dazzling. Although they made up less than 5 percent of the population before 1914, Jews created, owned, and managed the majority of Hungarian heavy industry and mining, and nearly every one of the great banks. They were equally successful in commerce, small entrepreneurship, the liberal professions, and all aspects of culture and the arts. By the beginning of the twentieth century they had also made significant inroads into the state bureaucracy, the judiciary, the officer corps, and large landownership. Assimilation for the Jewish elite increasingly took the form of conversion and intermarriage.3

There was a reaction to all this. Those who had profited less from the economic boom—the ethnic minorities, including Romanians and Slovaks, the impoverished gentry, the clergy as well as some small shopkeepers and artisans—tended to blame the Jews for their perceived misfortune. There were a few relatively minor pogroms, but the Hungarian government and the dominant liberal press firmly rejected what they considered a return to medieval obscurantism. Meanwhile, Jews did not even consider creating a separate Jewish political organization. Although Theodor Herzl was born in Budapest, his case for a Jewish state was categorically rejected among Hungarian Jewish leaders and in the press. For educated Jews, Judaism was no more than a religious denomination; therefore, Zionist nationalism amounted to treason. Few people paid attention to Herzl’s warn- ing, in 1903, to a Hungarian Jewish politician:

The hand of fate shall also seize Hungarian Jewry. And the later this occurs, and the stronger this Jewry becomes, the more cruel and hard shall be the blow, which shall be delivered with greater savagery. There is no escape.4

In the early chapters of his book, Tibor Frank reminds us that nearly all the famous Jewish Hungarians were born under Emperor-King Francis Joseph’s Dual Monarchy. They belonged to the second and, even more, to the third generation of Jews who had made successful careers. The Marxist-Leninist philosopher Georg Lukács’s grandfather was an illiterate quilt-maker, his father a banker on whom the king conferred the honor of including in his name the word Szegedi, a reference to his place of birth that was a mark of nobility. János/John von Neumann’s ancestors came to Hungary from Russia; his father, a lawyer and a banker, was also ennobled as were, incidentally, hundreds of other Jewish families; there were also some twenty-five Jewish Hungarian baronial families.

Frank, who is the author of many historical and cultural studies, in part on British-American-Hungarian relations, makes it clear that the nineteenth-century flourishing of Jews had been made possible by the near absence of a Hungarian urban middle class (cities were traditionally dominated by German-speaking guilds), by the government’s vigorous assimilationist policy, and by the liberal, anticlerical, secularist educational reforms developed by some aristocratic politicians and by middle-class teachers, often of Jewish background. Men of genius emerged above all from the high schools, which were modeled on the German Gymnasium. Two high schools in the Hungarian capital, the state-funded Mintagimnázium (Model Gymnasium) and the Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium, a private Lutheran establishment, educated the scientists von Kármán, von Neumann, Teller, and the future Nobel laureates Eugene Wigner and John C. Harsanyi —all of them Jews or of Jewish descent. But dozens of other schools, some in the countryside, also maintained very high standards, employing teachers with doctoral degrees and scholarly publications. Most amazing of all was the lack of prejudice and discrimination. Try to imagine a Christian denominational school in the US, late in the nineteenth century, in which most students were Jews by religion.

The sufferings of World War I, the deaths of half a million Hungarian citizen-soldiers, and the defeat of the Central Powers brought about two successive revolutions, one democratic, the other Bolshevik. In both, but especially in the Republic of Soviets, led by Béla Kun, young Jewish reformers and social critics had a crucial part. For the first but not the only time in modern Hungarian history, men of Jewish origin but not of the Jewish religious persuasion occupied command positions in the government, the military, and over cultural policy and education. All this without the Communist leaders ever publicly referring to their Jewish background. Nor did they in any way favor the Jewish community, which mostly rejected the Communist experiment.

Some of the later celebrated Jewish intellectuals, such as Leo Szilard, happily agreed to participate in what seemed a great social experiment; others, such as the sociologist Oscar Jászi, fled abroad. The Republic of Soviets was replaced after 133 days by a counterrevolutionary group under Admiral Miklós Horthy. Needing scapegoats for the defeat and the dismemberment of the country, officers’ detachments killed real or alleged Communists as well as Jews, irrespective of whether they had participated in the Soviet regime.

Interwar Hungary was full of contradictions. The White Terror ended in a few years and the government became again constitutional, but the White terrorists were never punished, and at the universities anti-Semitic students freely harassed and attacked Jewish students. Meanwhile, refugees from Transylvania and other territories grabbed by Hungary’s neighbors inundated the country, clamoring for jobs. In response, the parliament in 1920 adopted a law intended to reduce the presence of Jewish students at the universities to something approximating their proportion in the general population, which was a little less than 6 percent. But this law was suspended eight years later; as late as 1935 the proportion of Jewish lawyers, medical doctors, journalists, and engineers was higher than even before World War I, often approaching 50 percent. The proportion of Jews among the professionals practicing in Budapest was higher still.

Almost incredibly, as late as 1941, the majority of Hungary’s biggest taxpayers and those with the greatest personal wealth were still Jews or converts of Jewish origin. These and similar statistics were made much of by the press and the politicians, but what they failed to say was that the absolute number of Jews was steadily declining because of emigration, a low birth rate, and conversions; and once the economy began to improve, as it did in the late 1930s, there were lucrative positions for the newly educated Christian middle class as well. What counts however is that the old silent contract between gentry and Jews had come to an end, as had the rule of the gentry itself. Preoccupation with Jews seems in retrospect like a sickness that afflicted all strata of society, but especially the educated classes.

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The Hungarian physicists Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard, both of whom emigrated to the US

As Frank demonstrates, the emigration of Hungary’s most talented Jews began in 1919 with those who abhorred the Red regime, and continued immediately afterward with those who had reasons to fear Horthy’s antiliberal, anti-Semitic regime. The future Nobel laureate in chemistry George de Hevesy, who had accepted an academic position under the Red regime, was dismissed and denied the right to teach at the University of Budapest. He left Hungary for good in 1920. Other Jewish professors were also purged; but as Frank shows, many left not because the universities half-closed their doors to Jews but because of the flourishing cultural and scientific life in Germany, especially in Berlin, as well as in Zurich, Prague, and Paris.

Following its early radicalism, the counterrevolutionary Horthy regime, and especially Count Kuno Klebelsberg, its minister of religion and education between 1922 and 1931, tried to lure the best of Jewish talent back to Hungary, and quite a few responded. Still, Frank is right to call attention to talented Jews who moved from Hungary to the scientific and artistic centers in Germany and from there overseas. Not all who came to the New World were refugees from Nazism; many simply profited from immigration laws that virtually excluded ordinary Hungarians but admitted outstanding scientists, provided that they could find a sponsor.

Besides devoting special chapters to the careers of Leo Szilard, Michael Polanyi, von Kármán, von Neumann, and the mathematician George Pólya, Frank summarizes masterfully the accomplishments of Hungarian Jews in America. Here it should be enough to draw attention to the letter that Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Edward Teller drafted in August 1939 to President Roosevelt, and that Albert Einstein signed. In it, the scientists requested that the United Sates engage in a race with Nazi Germany for the construction of an atomic bomb. One shudders at the thought of what would have become of the world if these men, and hundreds of other Jewish scientists, had been welcome to stay and work in Germany and Hungary during the war.

The émigrés were far away from Hungary when the first anti-Jewish law since the one of 1920 was adopted in 1938. Partly in appreciation, the Führer enabled Hungary to regain a considerable part of the lands lost after World War I. In return, Hungary joined in the German attack on Yugoslavia and, in June 1941, on the Soviet Union. But Hungary never made a clear agreement with Germany regarding the war and the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” By late 1943, for instance, Hungary was seeking a separate armistice with the Allies, and although nearly 60,000 Hungarian Jews had already been killed, around 800,000 were still alive, staying in their own homes, holding down jobs, frequenting theaters, concerts, cafés, hotels, swimming pools, and public parks, all of which were open to Jews. Then came the German occupation in March 1944 and the late, sudden, catastrophic, but never complete Hungarian Holocaust.

Kati Marton’s father was one of those whose life was threatened, yet his chances of survival were far better than those of, say a poor Orthodox Jew in northeastern Hungary. Endre Marton came from a well-to-do Budapest family that had Magyarized their name to Marton at the turn of the century. He was baptized, spoke several languages, including English, and deliberately cultivated the image of a pipe-smoking British gentleman; he wore a signet ring bearing the crest of a former lover, an Austrian countess. Marton was an accomplished sportsman who excelled particularly in fencing (as did the converted Jew Ádám Sors in István Szabó’s 1999 film Sunshine). He had earned a doctorate in literature, and he was never called up for labor service.

When the Germans invaded Hungary, in March 1944, Endre Marton and his wife, Ilona, chose not to wear the yellow star; rather, they moved from the home of one Christian acquaintance to another. Regent Horthy himself, who was indifferent to the fate of the unassimilated Jews of northeastern Hungary, and who allowed the deportation of nearly half a million Jews from the countryside to Auschwitz, succeeded in preserving the lives of the generally assimilated Jews of Budapest. Only the National Socialist Arrow Cross government, which took over from Horthy in October 1944, hunted down the Jews of the capital, but it did so haphazardly and with partial success. Survival was, at least in part, a question of class.

Ilona Marton, the author’s mother, was less lucky because her parents had been deported from their country house and were gassed at Auschwitz. As her daughter explains, the tragedy of Ilona’s parents remained a shameful secret even after liberation; the children were told that their grandparents had died in an air raid. Only when she was thirty did the author come across some documents that forced her parents to confess their Jewish origins. Not that this was unique; the case of Madeleine Albright, who was of Jewish Czech origin, is nearly identical, as is that of thousands of other assimilated Jews. Before the end of the war, children’s questions were often dismissed with “we are Catholics, not Jews”; after the war, with “we are Communists, not Jews.”

And why not, when before 1945 ignorance of your origins could save your life, and after 1945, under communism, the same ignorance could give you the illusion of melting into a great community united behind the socialist idea? Were these vain dreams? Yes, when viewing the tragedy of Kati Marton’s maternal grandparents; no, when viewing the success of the Marton family in Budapest in passing as Gentiles. Yet Marton writes that even though

anti-Semitism shaped Papa’s life choices…whenever [he] talked about those years, it was with a strange nostalgia for the era “before the catastrophe”—the catastrophe being the Communists, against whom personal initiative was useless.

The end of the war brought a semi-democratic regime to Hungary and then a Communist takeover. By 1949, in official propaganda, the Western powers had changed from respected antifascists into capitalist enemies; Tito, after his break with Moscow, had turned into a running dog of US imperialism, and the Hungarian émigrés had transformed themselves from our “dear compatriots abroad” into “fascist spies and diversants.” Nearly everything was nationalized, hundreds of thousands were put in jail or in concentration and internment camps, and travel abroad became impossible.

What made these developments unique was that they took place largely under the leadership of Communists of Jewish origin who, as in 1919, never publicly mentioned their Jewish roots. Instead, they made sure that there would be a good number of Jews among their victims. Just as Jews were overrepresented in the political police, they were also overrepresented among the victims of the political show trials. And while the Stalinist brand of terror ended in 1953, with partial revivals both in 1955 and following the suppressed revolution of 1956, the presence of Jews in the Party leadership steadily declined over the years. Non-Jewish Hungarians, recruited mainly from the working classes, gradually took over command positions.

In this upside-down world, the Martons were able to behave as if they “belonged to another civilization.” As correspondents of the Western news agencies AP and UP, Endre and Ilona regularly spent time at Western legations; they were fashionable, glamorous, active, seemingly unconcerned with their inevitable fate. They did not tell their daughters that they had unsuccessfully applied to emigrate to New Zealand in 1948 and had been considering other ways to leave. Arrested separately in 1955, they were accused of being American spies. Prisoners were no longer tortured, but under relentless interrogation, with secret police officials hammering on the tragic future of his wife and children, Endre made a despairing false confession that he’d been an American agent, although a police officer wrote that he “did not compromise a single Hungarian.”

Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Soviet Party Congress in 1956 gradually improved matters, and after a grim, perfunctory trial and sentences of years in prison, the two were released in less than a year. It had been a harrowing experience not only for them but also for their two little girls, who in a desperate moment were left alone, with their parents kidnapped by the police, sitting and crying on the curb in front of their empty house. Later, they were farmed out to strangers.

All this is touchingly recounted by Kati Marton, whose main source of information is the many thousands of pages of reports that form the files of the secret police, which she was able to examine in Budapest. In fact, as in the German film The Lives of Others, the police knew much more about her parents than she was ever able to learn from them directly. It is no less disturbing that the police, in turn, obtained their information from relatives, employees, neighbors, and friends of the Martons, especially from the children’s French nanny and from a US diplomat in Budapest who, although later unmasked as a spy for the Hungarians, was never punished by the American authorities.

For the Martons, it all ended well when they received permission to leave Hungary following the 1956 revolution and—despite the strangely cold-blooded efforts of the Associated Press to keep them out of the US—were able to settle in Maryland. Now Hungarian agents made elaborate efforts to recruit them, and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover continued to suspect them of working for the Communists. The family owed much, as Marton makes clear in her admirably calm and restrained prose, to American diplomats in Budapest who gave them shelter when the Soviets attacked Hungary in 1956 and who, at a time when Hoover’s power was at its height, sought to “allay any concerns” that the Martons might be Communist spies.

Back in the nineteenth century, Jewish Hungarians helped to change an agrarian society into a more modern nation. In the years following 1918, when the remnants of Hungarian territory were impoverished, embittered, nearly monoethnic, and overcrowded, many of the most talented Hungarian Jews moved west, especially to the United States. As Tibor Frank shows in his invaluable study, they were talented enough to contribute to the transformation of a still provincial country into a super-modern society, with hydrogen bombs, computer technology, and some of the most popular American and British patriotic movies of their time.

  1. 1

    Simon and Schuster, 2006. Of similarly great value are three other books dealing with Hungarians in exile: Lee Congdon, Exile and Social Thought: Hungarian Intellectuals in Germany and Austria, 1919–1933 (Princeton University Press, 1991) and, by the same author, Seeing Red: Hungarian Intellectuals in Exile and the Challenge of Communism (Northern Illinois University Press, 2001), as well as István Hargittai, The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2006).

  2. 2

    With regard to names, I have followed Tibor Frank’s practice of citing them the way each person tended to spell it when abroad. Thus, for instance, diacritical marks are often missing. Also because late in the eighteenth century, the Habsburg authorities gave the Jews of Hungary German-sounding family names, many were later converted to Hungarian-sounding family names, and then again, when abroad, to German-, French-, or English/American- sounding names. Thus Manó Kaminer became Mihály Kertész while still in Hungary and Michael Curtiz when in the US. The actor who played the waiter in Curtiz’s famous Casablanca began as Sándor Gärtner, continued as Jeno Gero , became the actor Szo ke Szakáll (Blonde Beard), and was finally known in Hollywood as S.Z. Sakall.

  3. 3

    By 1900, one out of every five reserve officers in the army of Austria-Hungary and in the Hungarian National Guards was a Jew by religion, not counting those who had converted to Christianity. Fifteen percent of the large landed estates in the country were owned by persons of Jewish origin, and the vast majority of those who rented large estates were Jews.

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    Theodor Herzl to Erno Mezei, who was a Jewish member of the Hungarian parliament, on March 10, 1903. Quoted in T.D. Kramer, From Emancipation to Catastrophe: The Rise and Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry (University Press of America, 2000), p. xii.

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