Kati Marton’s The Great Escape is an eye-opener. How many of us know that turn-of-the century Budapest was a world-unique hotbed of intellectual and artistic activity where Jews participated on an equal basis with gentiles? Not me. Nor did I know that when it all fell apart during and after WWI, when Hungary lost its seaport in the Versailles/Trianon carveup, when poverty and despotism took over so much of Eastern Europe, these same prosperous Jews became worse and worse off as the century progressed. Most of all, I did not know that a good number of them migrated to Berlin and/or Paris, thence to America and/or Britain and helped profoundly change our history and culture.
Here are the names of the nine men whose history Marton traces in The Great Escape. Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, John von Neumann, Arthur Koestler, Michael Curtiz, Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz,
and Alexander Korda. I recognized Teller’s name, of course, and Koestler’s, but was chagrined at my ignorance about the others. Wigner won the nobel prize in physics. von Neumann virtually invented the computer. Curtiz directed Casablanca and dozens more famous films. Korda based himself in London and directed equally renowned if less famous films. The Third Man with Orson Welles is perhaps his most highly regarded. Kertesz was a pioneer in photography with a reputation among artists right up there with Henri Carier-Bresson’s. Capa’s achievements as a photo-journalist are unsurpassed, especially when it comes to war photography. Four of these guys (Wigner, Szilard, Teller, and von Neumann) worked on the Manhattan project and subsequently became involved in bomb politics–on opposite sides. Isn’t that enough? Not quite. Marton also alludes to people whose stories she doesn’t detail.
Over a dozen Nobel Prize winners emerged from roughly the same generation of Hungarians. (there is some dispute as to their numbers, twelve to eighteen, depending on whether one counts areas of the county of country the Treaty of Trianon stripped away in 1920.) Among them were George de Hevesy, John Polanyi, and George Olah, awarded nobel Prizes in chemistry, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Georg von Bekesy, awarded Nobel Prizes in medicine; Dennis Gabor and Plilipp Lenard, who joined Eugene Wigner in winning the physics Nobel; and in economics, John Harasanyi, who won a Nobel for his work in Game Theory, the field pioneered by von Neumann, whose early death probably denied him his own Nobel. There were others–not all of them Nobel laureates. Marcel Breuer designed his famous chair and other Bauhaus masterpieces, as well as the Whitney Museum in New York. Bela Bartok’s disturbing harmonies started in Budapest and reached the world. For decades, Bartok’s students, as well as other products of Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy, among them Fritz Reiner, Geroge Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, and Anatal Dorati, created the sound of the world’s’ great orchestras.
For some reason Marton did not include the Gabor sisters on her list. Maybe they were edited out for space reasons. At any rate, she chose the subjects of her history well, for all of these men led exciting, disturbing, and historically significant lives which should be better known than they are. Her writing is lively, and the book is structured to keep the narrative moving without losing track of any of the individual stories. Oh, and don’t let me forget the dozens of terrific photos. They range in subject and style from a snapshot of Koestler and Langston Hughes picking cotton in Turkmenistan to some of Kertesz and Capa’s best work. I wonder that this book and its content haven‘t received more play in the press. There’s no more significant story in the twentieth century and it deserves to be broadcast as widely as possible.
[Footnote: In July, I did a review on this website of Arthur Phillips’ Prague, which inexplicably takes place mostly in Budapest. Like all such travel and reading, the geography and color I picked up from that novel enhanced my enjoyment of The Great Escape. An intimate knowledge of Budapest is not an absolute prerequisite, but you will get more out of it if you google a bit of history and geography beyond the map Marton provides in the opening of the book.]