“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” There’s something amusing about hearing Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, talk like this. He was referring to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, an effort he considered harmful and unnecessary, which the Hungarians in question–the physicist Edward Teller and the mathematician John von Neumann, both Jews–strongly advocated as a means of undercutting Stalinist expansion in Eastern Europe. Von Neumann had recently invented game theory, which would soon be applied to the lethal calculus known as “mutual assured destruction,” while Teller was the rumored archetype for Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.
It’s strange, in light of this anecdote, to realize that only a few books examine the preternaturally powerful impact of Hungarian Jews on the 20th century, particularly in the arts and sciences. Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World comes as a welcome entry in the field. Under the rubric of scientists, Marton examines the lives of Teller, von Neumann, Eugene Wigner*, and Leo Szilard, all of whom ushered particle physics into its eschatological own.
She also devotes more than half of her book to studying Hungarian-Jewish talent in literature, film, and photography. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon stands as the most chilling and insightful anti-Communist novel ever written. Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca, the greatest anti-fascist film ever made (in the running for greatest tout court), while British movie mogul Sir Alexander Korda (né Sandor Kellner) takes the honor for having produced the best ravaged-Europe postwar story committed to celluloid, The Third Man, which he prompted his close friend Graham Greene to script. (Korda’s other notable yachting chum was Winston Churchill.) The photographers under consideration are Andre Kertesz, the leading lensman of World War I, who mastered playful reflections and light distortions well before the Surrealists, and Robert Capa, the legendary visual chronicler of the Spanish Civil War and D-Day, who went on to co-found the still-thriving photographic cooperative Magnum Photos.
Modern life owes a great deal to these thick-accented and beguiling émigrés. But what was it that made them so special? Geography and timing, according to Marton. Her collective biography is a historical and sentimental, not to say sentimentalized, monument to the “Golden Age” of Budapest, a ghetto-less medieval city that became the cosmopolitan ground zero for European Jewish assimilation. By 1900, Jews comprised approximately one-fifth of the city’s population, as a vibrant and influential minority.
“Six hundred cafes, and among the continent’s highest concentration of theaters and cabarets, changed the rhythms of the city,” writes Marton, whose parents came of age in this milieu. “There were streets as crowded at midnight as at nine in the morning. . . . Jews—whose goal was to be Hungarian citizens of the Jewish faith—and Hungarians seemed equally invested in the dream.” So well-established and confident were Budapest’s Jews in their “Zion on the Danube” between 1870 and 1910 that the Hungarian poet Endre Ady, a Gentile, was given to proclaiming his hometown “built by the Jews for the rest of us.” There’s no small irony in the fact that the most philo-Semitic city in Mitteleuropa was also the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, who would become the prophet of Jewish relocation to the Middle East.
Or perhaps no irony at all. Budapest’s scintillating period was short-lived, and the city soon found itself located on the miserable fault-line between twin despotisms, twice. Stalin and Hitler had grim dress rehearsals in the form of Bela Kun, architect of Hungary’s Soviet Republic, and Admiral Nicholas Horthy, the right-wing dictator who emerged out of the fractured Austro-Hungarian military class and revenged himself on the Jews, whom he thought of as synonymous, more or less, with Communists. Stalin’s post-World War II anti-Semitic purges in the Warsaw Pact nations had a grim precursor in Budapest: the “heroes” of 1919 became the Laszlo Rajks of 1949. Indeed, one senses that the seedbed for the 1956 revolution was actually laid almost four decades earlier.
Koestler once remarked that the Hungarian people were the loneliest on the continent because of their linguistic and ethnic solitude. To be Jewish and Hungarian meant living in a state of double exile no matter where you washed ashore (in Koestler’s case, Berlin, Mandatory Palestine, Turkmenistan, Catalonia, and London). But even great loneliness sometimes has its rewards. It seems rather likely that because Hungarian is a language virtually impenetrable to outsiders (Edmund Wilson once made a valiant effort to learn it), its brilliant Jewish speakers proved fluent in the ways of eccentric, clubbish secrecy, a characteristic that served bon vivant aristocrats like Sir Alexander Korda as well as it did the wartime scientists at Los Alamos.
* Eugene Wigner was originally misidentified.