Friday, December 3, 2010

The Budapest Brain Drain

My travels and research are often accompanied by a reading program on related topics.   In recent years I’ve been particularly intrigued by the cities of Eastern Europe and especially the Jewish experience.  While the Holocaust was a defining historical event, I am also interested in the Jewish experience pre-war as well as post-war.  What was life like? When did they begin to sense danger in their environment, a danger that exceeded the “conventional’ anti-Semitism of that time and place?  After the war, many Jews continued to live under Communism.  Others immigrated and attempted to rebuild their lives as survivors.  Obviously the Holocaust would have marked their experience and responses to their environment, but in what way?

My family history research has awakened an interest in history as it provides a context for understanding it on a personal level. The books that I find most enlightening are those that present history through the lens of those living it.  I only wish that I had been able to learn history in this manner originally as it would have captivated me much sooner. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Budapest and learn more about the history of that region.  When I stumbled across a book by Kati Marton, I was intrigued by its focus on Budapest and its mention of familiar places that we had visited.  As the daughter of Hungarian journalists with Jewish roots, she has a unique connection to the city.  Her parents were journalists in Budapest during the Communist regime, arrested, imprisoned and finally released, ultimately immigrating to the US.  Years later she goes back to Budapest and reads the files of the secret police, realizing the constant surveillance that her parents had been under in both Budapest and the US.   Her book Enemies of the People paints a vivid picture of life under the Communist regime.

While Marton’s maternal grandparents had perished at Auschwitz and her father’s career options were restricted by his Jewish heritage, the family raised their children as Catholics. It was not until Marton was an adult that she stumbled across her Jewish roots.

Marton’s book, The Great Escape also focuses upon Hungary, in this case the stories of nine Hungarian Jews who left their country as Hitler came to power.  Settling in the US and England, these nine Jews became major figures in physics, photography, film and literature.  While Marton’s memoir Enemies of the People, tells one story in which she is herself a character, The Great Escape captures a broader experience by virtue of the multiple and often intersecting histories it presents.  The Great Escape looks at the story of four scientists: Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann. These scientists were key figures in the creation of the atomic bomb. In addition von Neumann, a renowned mathematician, was known for inventing Game Theory and pioneering the computer.

The book relates a fascinating journey by Szilard and Wigner to visit Einstein in Long Island.  There they discussed the experiments in Germany which suggested a nuclear chain reaction could be created by bombarding uranium with neutrons. They then added a piece of information that Einstein had not yet contemplated, that this in turn could create atomic bombs.  Much of their impetus for their involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb was the fear that the Nazis would get there first, a fear colored by their realization of the danger presented by the Nazis long before the US shared that understanding. Several of them had studied physics in Berlin and knew the advances in science that could make this possible. Einstein was alarmed enough to sign a letter to President Roosevelt to alert him to this threat which ultimately led to the Manhattan Project.  After Hitler’s death, the creators of the atomic bomb assumed opposite sides of the issue. Szilard opposed the use of the atomic bomb convinced that the mere threat of it would have been sufficient.

Marton also tells the story of Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, major figures in modern photojournalism.  Michael Curtiz, the producer of the movie Casablanca and Alexander Korda, a major producer/director are also chronicled.  Marton rounds out the nine with the political writer Arthur Koestler. While all are interesting lives, the preponderance of the scientists who were so central to key world events causes these segments to dominate the book.

Marton hypothesizes that the position of these men as outsiders contributed to the remarkable roles they ultimately played.  They were outsiders on many levels, as Jews and as Hungarians.  Marton makes the point that Hungary was isolated by way of being landlocked and “language” locked, the language having no relationship to other languages and thus limited to a small segment of population.  In fact, many of those of whom she writes had extensive language skills that eased their transition between cultures.  She also notes that they were all nonobservant Jews, a product of the secular world of Budapest and its cafĂ© society.  Many of these men came of age in a period of rich cultural ferment prior to WWI.  Many went on to study in Berlin.  They were worldly and well-educated and highly sensitized to changes in the political environment.  Enough so that they saw the impending dangers, departed and re-established their lives and careers.

I found the consideration of “outsider” status of particular interest as I believe the outsider role frees one up to challenge the conventional wisdom, to “think outside of the box”.  I think it is likely that the considerable success of many Jews is partially attributable to that factor.  When one doesn’t have access to the traditional rewards of the system, one is strangely freed up to do the unexpected, to create one’s own path.  

1 comment:

  1. We have a son-in-law whose parents defected from Budapest. In light of his heritage, Budapest was one of the places we wanted to visit. We finally got there about six years ago. We found the city to be incredible and is definitely among one of our favorites. I also read Kati Marton's book, Enemies of the People, and couldn't put it down.
    We met an incredible woman, Marguit Meisner, when we were there. She has a powerful book on her escape from Budapest. We ended up visiting the Terror Museum while we were there. Marguit, who initially felt like it wouldn't be the "true" story, went to the museum and was impressed with their honesty.