In Syria, Europe & Boston, the Past Is Never Finished

From Syria to European anti-Semitism to Boston, we are seeing the warning signs again. By Kati Marton.

Yevgeny Khaldei/Corbis

“The human species is a deeply flawed biological product”—so wrote my countryman Arthur Koestler.

There is ample evidence to confirm Koestler’s thesis: the carnage in Syria, the grotesque imprisonment and sexual abuse of young women in Cleveland, the lethal Boston Marathon explosions, and the Sandy Hook massacre, even the rise of anti-Semitism in my native Hungary, from which my parents, my sister, and I escaped to America in the aftermath of the Soviets’ 1956 invasion. There is no brutality of which human beings are incapable.

Yet we as a nation seem constantly shocked, shocked by fresh reminders of that obvious fact. We act as if we lived in a gated community, immune to history, as if everything were happening for the first time. Breathless accounts of violence in a country we cannot locate on a map alternate in the media with headlines about the apparent madness of young Chechnyan immigrants, allegedly influenced by an al Qaeda website to make pressure-cooker bombs in their Cambridge, Mass., apartment. Only familiarity with the past, and with just how flawed a biological product we humans are, will lessen our shock at the next terrible explosion, and perhaps even enable us to prevent it. It takes time and preparation to turn a man into a mass murderer. As with genocide, attention must be paid to the warning signs, before the killing starts.

Less than a decade after the fall of the communist bloc, “Never Again” turned into “Here We Go Again.” In the Balkans in the 1990s, genocide once more raged in the heart of Europe. Men and boys were forced onto buses that carried them to firing squads and unmarked graves. The women they left behind were often raped, while snipers picked off civilians en route to work and outdoor markets. The antagonists were not strangers, but former neighbors who spoke the same language and had, just months earlier, been citizens of the same country, Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic, a demagogue in the mold of my childhood’s thuggish tyrants, applied techniques he mastered as a communist youth to light the fuse of hate, which soon turned homicidal, then genocidal. Millions fled the ethnic cleansers, streaming across borders, as my family had. Again, we were shocked. How could this happen in the late 20th century? And we averted our gaze until images of Sarajevo under siege on the nightly news forced our government to act.

My husband, Richard Holbrooke, seated me next to Milosevic during the opening dinner of the peace talks he organized in Dayton, Ohio. “Just how did this war start?” I asked the dictator, feigning ignorance. He shrugged, “I did not expect it to go on this long,” he said of the bloodletting that had cost 100,000 lives. Milosevic was either lying or ignorant of history’s most obvious lesson: those who start wars always predict a quick and easy victory.

Though I do not share Koestler’s deep pessimism, history is no abstraction to me. The twin experiments in remolding humanity, which nearly killed Koestler, snatched me from the Budapest hilltop where I was born, to deposit me on New York’s Riverside Drive.

I was led to my own history by one of the thousands of people rescued from the Nazis by Raoul Wallenberg. “Wallenberg arrived too late to Hungary to save your grandparents,” she told me—much to my surprise. Raised Catholic by my mother and father, I didn’t learn until adulthood that my maternal grandparents were in one of Adolf Eichmann’s early transports from the Hungarian countryside to Auschwitz. My parents, converted Jews, tried to shield me from the murderous hate they had experienced in Budapest; they had told me my grandparents had perished under the Allies’ bombs. The past suddenly barged into my well-ordered American life and seemed more urgent than the present.

Well before the gas chambers were ever built, the park benches in Hungary read “No Jews Allowed.” A year later, Jews like my parents and grandparents were booted out of their jobs, and then their homes. The world had time to react. Yet, sadly, Wallenberg was an anomaly: he succeeded in saving thousands when most others—especially those in powerful positions—said nothing could be done. Why was he so singular and alone? After Rwanda, after Bosnia, and, today, Syria, this question is as urgent as the day the 31-year-old Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in the summer of 1944.

Part of the explanation for this dismal record of non-rescue is our capacity for willed blindness. We in our land of optimists like to believe our species is perfectible. We also balk at imagining the unimaginable—especially when it is an ocean away. When Jan Karski, the Polish diplomat, arrived to Washington to report what he had witnessed in the Warsaw Ghetto, Justice Felix Frankfurter shook his head. “I did not say he was lying,” the great justice explained, “I said that I cannot believe him.”

We cannot live in the past and ghosts are not good companions. But history is who we are. When I was 6 years old, I opened the front door of our Budapest apartment to face four secret policemen with a warrant to arrest my mother. My father was already their prisoner. To write my account of my parents’ imprisonment and conviction on false charges of being CIA agents, I burrowed into the secret police archives of post-communist Hungary. “You are opening a Pandora’s box,” my Hungarian friends warned me. “Let the past be.” Indeed, I did make disturbing discoveries about the two people I revered above all others. Thanks to the relentless surveillance of the Hungarian KGB, I am now in possession of all my parents’ secrets. They more than survived the terrible last century. They held on to their values, emerged from prison whole, and found strength to restart their lives here. They loved America with the passion of the dispossessed. But, late at night, I would overhear their conversation in the language they did not speak during the day, in a different tone.

My parents wanted to shield me from my history, to “spare me.” They were wrong. The price of letting the past be is prohibitive. I return now to my old city and am struck by the high cost of historic amnesia. Hate, anger, envy, and racism are in Budapest’s air again during this sour time in Europe. The quick fix of anti-Semitism again tempts those without historic memory. Attention, here, too, must be paid.