A writer who was one of Communism’s most outspoken and influential critics. Two film directors, one who gave us Casablanca, the other The Third Man. Two photographers, one of whom was responsible for the iconic D-Day landing photos seen the world over. Four scientists who were the heart and soul of the Manhattan Project. Besides being Hungarian Jews who fled their nation as the twin evils of antisemitism and totalitarianism began to strangle Central Europe, these nine individuals would go on to make immense contributions in photojournalism, computing, film, politics and nuclear physics. The fascinating lives and achievements of Arthur Koestler, Michael Curtiz, Alexander Korda, Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and John von Neuman serve as the basis for Kati Marton’s excellent 2006 book The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World.
All Jewish emigres from a “small, linguistically impenetrable, landlocked country”, Marton refers to the nine men as “double outsiders.” One would think that considering the obstacles in their paths, (even living in the freer societies of England and America), it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible for these Hungarian native sons to achieve greatness. But, as Marton so skillfully describes in The Great Escape, that is exactly what they did. Intellectually nourished in their youth by Budapest’s superior school system, these young members of Hungary’s intelligentsia would also seek additional knowledge and inspiration in the city’s countless cafes and coffee shops, discussing amongst themselves latest developments in science, mathematics, politics and art. Educated, cultured and committed to succeed, upon reaching the West they would flourish in their new surroundings, and their eventual achievements in multiple fields would resonate for generations.
Like most impressive historical figures, these nine individuals would have their own particular brushes with greatness. Koestler would meet African-American poet Langston Hughes while touring the Soviet Union. Capa would romance Ingrid Bergman. Curtiz, after directing Bergman in Casablanca would later discover Doris Day. Von Neuman would argue passionately with Nobel laureate John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame. Several of the above-mentioned nuclear physicists would enlist Albert Einstein to draft a letter to FDR requesting that America begin work on an atomic bomb. Forty years later Teller would serve as confidant to Ronald Reagan, asking him to develop the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative. Plus, according to Marton, one can’t help wondering if their accomplishments might have inspired a later generation of Hungarian emigres to also strive towards greatness, men like Intel’s Andy Grove, financier/philanthropist/human rights advocate George Soros and Nobel literature laureate Imre Keretsz.
This is one of those wonderful books that I never would have discovered had I not spotted it on the shelf at my local public library. It makes a great companion piece to books like How the Irish Saved Civilization and How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Rightfully conceived, well-researched and well-written, it’s quite easy for me to recommend The Great Escape to anyone.