Book profiles 9 Hungarians who changed American science, art

The end of Budapest’s Golden Age in 1918 was a new beginning for creativity and scientific discovery in the United States.

So explains a new book by author and journalist Kati Marton, who explores how nine Hungarian immigrants changed the landscape of science and art in the United States.

“The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World” weaves together the life stories of nine men who came of age in Budapest before the city fell to fascism and communism.

“It’s time to acknowledge what transformative characters they were in American history,” Marton told j. while in the Bay Area on a book tour. She spoke recently at Stacey’s bookstore in San Francisco.

Her book chronicles scientists who pioneered work on the atomic bomb — Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, and scientist John von Neuman, who helped develop the first computer.

It also looks at Arthur Koestler, author of the anti-communist novel “Darkness at Noon”; famed war photographer Robert Capa and photojournalist André Kertész; and filmmakers Alexander Korda, who made wartime propaganda films for Winston Churchill, and “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz.

All were secular Jews who grew up in the same area of Budapest, but only found success after immigrating to the United States.

“My original goal was to capture Budapest in its golden period” between 1890 and 1918, Marton said. “These men kept popping up in my research, so I followed their journey and the book evolved over time.”

The effort required nearly three years of research, a process that took Marton to Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, New York and Hollywood. The writing process, though shorter, was just as intense. She wrote nine separate life histories, then rewrote them to make one, more seamless story.

“This is an American story … in that even though they were shunned by their native countries, they were able to flower in this country of immigrants,” she said.

It is also a personal story. Marton was born in Budapest to journalist parents who worked for the Associated Press and United Press International, and were arrested and imprisoned by communists during the Cold War. As a result, for nearly two years, Marton and her sister stayed with family friends. Her parents were released just before the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and resumed reporting. In early 1957, they left Hungary for America.

“My fantasy as a little girl was to grow up in a house without bullet holes,” she said.

Marton’s parents were Jews, but raised her and her sister Catholic, because it was safer to do so in the aftermath of the Holocaust. She learned of her Jewish background in the early ’80s while doing research for a book.

Her mother died in 2004; her father in 2005.

“To be immodest, they would have loved the book,” she said. She regrets they are not around to read it.

Marton’s Budapest was a bleak Stalinist city, a stark contrast to the swanky, progressive metropolis in which her parents grew up. That Budapest — between 1890 and 1918 — was a hub for art, creativity, tolerance and optimism.

Jews flourished. For example, Jews accounted for more than 40 percent of the journalists working at the city’s 39 daily newspapers, more than half of the city’s lawyers and doctors, a third of the city’s engineers and a fourth of its artists and writers.

“Jews who had been marginalized in the Austro-Hungarian empire could go as far as their talent would take them,” she said.

The artistic attitude of the city nurtured the intellect and creativity of the nine Hungarian Jews Marton chronicles in her book. The men were driven away from their homeland by anti-Semitism and fascism. They first moved to other parts of Europe, namely Paris and Berlin, and then immigrated to the United States.

“These men really did transform the landscape of America,” Marton said. “Their recognition is long overdue.”

“The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World” by Kati Marton (288 pages, Simon & Schuster, $27).

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.