Escape from Hungary

Michael Korda is moved by Kati Marton’s powerful memoir, Enemies of the People, about her parents’ struggles under fascism and communism, their hidden Jewish identity, and Eastern Europe’s weighty history.

10.20.09 6:46 AM ET

At a moment when many historians are trying to bring to the American public’s attention the Slovak government’s push to make it illegal for its substantial Hungarian minority to speak or use Magyar, their own language, it is both useful and a pleasure to read Kati Marton’s book, Enemies of the People, about the persecution and survival of her family, and to remind ourselves of the horrors of Eastern Europe. Endemic anti-Semitism, Nazi occupation and collaboration, the murder of millions of Jews, wholesale redivision of frontiers leaving large numbers of people stranded in the middle of alien and hostile populations, then Stalinist rule, with all its cruelties and stupidities, followed by “reformist” communist governments that were no better, followed finally by the end of the Cold War and an indecent rush for the riches of free-market capitalism, which plunged many people into poverty while the young, the shrewd and the tough carved out huge fortunes for themselves. In Eastern Europe the past is not only always hovering over the present, it is not even passed. It waits, like some malevolent caged beast, ready at any moment to escape and bring back all the horrors.

When someone has spent a lifetime trying to survive a death sentence, the last thing you want is your children uncovering what you have been at such pains to conceal.

Kati Marton’s wonderful book is a necessary reminder and antidote to this tide of history. It is a family story that reads like a good novel, with a happy ending of sorts, and at the same time a searing account of what life was like for people in Eastern Europe between the end of World War I and the fall of communism. Filled with repression, murder, lies, it was a world out of a novel by John le Carré or Graham Greene, in which your best friends betray you to the secret police, in which everybody from the hall porter to the babysitter are informers, and in which even the smallest deviation from the party’s current “line” can bring the dreaded knock on the door, the arrest, with or without torture, and a “show trial.” These are, or were, the realities of life for millions of people, and by following her own family through its experiences, and uncovering, so far as it can be uncovered, the truth of what happened, she has written not only an exciting book, a journey of discovery full of surprises and pains, but also a wonderful document of, to borrow Romain Gary’s famous phrase, “a European education.”

Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America. By Kati Marton. 288 pages. Simon & Schuster. $26.

Although Marton and I have very different life experiences (unless you include the fact that we were awarded the honor of Commander of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary at the same ceremony), just as she did not discover that her parents were Jewish until she was 30, I did not discover that my father was Jewish until the death of his brother Zoltan (the director of Sanders of the River, The Four Feathers, and Sahara) in 1961. Like her parents, it was not that the Korda brothers were ashamed of being Jewish, they simply found it more expedient not to expose their children to yet another danger, and had learned the hard way just how high the cost of being Jewish could be in Hungary in the 1940s, under the double hammer blow of Hungarian fascism and German occupation. Marton discovered that her maternal grandparents had been sent to their death in Auschwitz in 1944, part of the more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered there, and the gaps in my father’s side of the family among those who had stayed in Hungary were equally chilling, as was the determination of everybody to ignore those who had been killed as if they had never existed. Marton’s beloved father, a man of the utmost politeness, charm, and sophistication, was, she says, “cold” when she related this discovery to him.

How well one understands that! When someone has spent a lifetime trying to survive a death sentence—for being Jewish in Hungary, as in many other places in Europe, was a death sentence, without appeal or mercy—the last thing you want is your children uncovering what you have been at such pains to conceal. She handles wonderfully her parents’ insistence that they were not Jewish, they were Hungarian—that strange patriotism assimilated Hungarian Jews have always felt for the country, the language, the culture they loved, and their inability to separate themselves from it. Nobody has written better than Marton (in The Great Escape) about the great migration of Hungarian geniuses to the West after World War I, and the fact that so many of them were Jewish, but felt no need to cling to that inconvenient fact once they reached Paris, London, New York or Hollywood. Nobody is more sentimental about Hungary than a Hungarian who has left it behind, and Marton’s parents were no exception.

Still, the genius of her book, its readability, its fascination, is her profound love for her parents, and her deep understanding of the terrors within which they lived, and the things they had to do to survive—survive not once, but twice, first despite the Hungarian fascists and the Germans, who would have killed them as Jews, and then despite the Hungarian communist government, which wanted them silenced. The fact that both her parents were reporters for American news agencies (her father did the writing for both of them), frequented the American Embassy, drove an American car, and had a life of privilege in a “People’s Democracy” marked them down as “enemies of the people,” in the jargon of the day, and the fact that they were intelligent, civilized, well-dressed, and sophisticated only made their arrest and suffering more certain.

Marton has written a book that is honest, frank, and true—her explorations of the secret police files on her parents, the revelations that these sordid files contained, her painful reconstruction of the truth of what life was like for people in a country in which the truth is systematically forbidden, in which lies are the common currency of the state, in which murder and repression are everyday realities, in which the government is your enemy, recalls the best works of Koestler and Orwell, but contained within a family story, which remains for all its horrors, touching, life-loving, even, in its own unsentimental way, inspirational. Her parents were—one can sense it reading the book and looking at the family photos—decent, complicated, interesting, attractive people; her father, though like many other Hungarian Jews (some of them, I must confess, in my own family) hid many secrets behind an urbane façade, uncanny cosmopolitanism and an incisive intelligence, was somebody one would have wanted to know, they were in every respect a remarkable couple, and few daughters could ever have had the courage, loving them as she did, to track down so carefully every detail about their lives as Kati Marton has done, bringing them back to life both as they wanted to be known and remembered, and as they were.

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New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.