THE POST-HOLOCAUST GENERATIONS
RETURN TO THEIR ROOTS
Enemies of the
People: My Family’s Journey to America Kati
Marton (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, 272pp., ISBN 978-1-4165-8612-8, $26)
Thomas Land in Budapest
Kati Marton, an award-winning American foreign
correspondent, was researching a book in 1981 about the Holocaust when a chance
remark by a survivor changed her life. The book was about Raoul Wallenberg, the
Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jewish lives during the
Second World War. “What a pity, my dear,” the old woman told the visiting
journalist, “that this man arrived too late to save your own grandparents from
the gas chambers...”
But the reporter thought she had been born and bred a
Catholic, faithfully attending mass every week! The memoir Enemies of the
People: My Family’s Journey to America is the result of her subsequent
inquiries into the story of her abused parents, now both deceased.
They were democrats and also eminent foreign
correspondents who barely survived the German Nazi and the Soviet Communists
occupiers of this country, and who tragically kept their Jewish culture secret
from their children for fear of history repeating itself. Their daughter tells a
marvellous, triumphant tale of love and betrayal, courage and cunning, grinding
slog and high adventure. She juxtaposes the innocent view of the child that the
author was when the early events of the book took place with the retrospective,
knowing assessment of the experienced adult narrator. The work is set against
the background of Eastern Europe’s murderous and deceitful recent past that the
peoples of this region are just beginning to comprehend.
Close to seven decades after the end of the war, many
deliberately misinformed descendents of Holocaust survivors -- mostly Jews but
also Roma, homosexuals and political dissidents -- are belatedly confronting the
truth of their origins. There may well be many more such long suppressed family
secrets still awaiting discovery in the elaborate personal archives assembled by
the defunct internal spying agencies of formerly Soviet-administered Europe,
which are now available for public inspection.
The author’s parents -- Endre Marton, and economist,
and his wife Ilona, a historian -- were young, elegant, charming, sophisticated,
brazen and ambitious. They were passionately patriotic Hungarians. They fought
the Nazi invaders of their country during the war by escaping from captivity,
staying on the move, hiding with gentile friends and participating in the
fledgling national resistance movement. They challenged and provoked the
subsequent Communist administration by practising as the only permanently
accredited, independent Western journalists engaged behind the Iron Curtain in
the 1950s, foreign correspondents in their own country. Their employers were the
two major news agencies of the United States, which was regarded then as the
arch-enemy of this country.
The Martons also attempted to defy history by denying
their Jewish origins after the war and bringing up their daughters in the
Catholic faith. They kept up the pretence even after their emigration to the
United States following the collapse of the 1956 Hungarian revolution against
Soviet rule. Many East European Holocaust survivors did that in their assumption
of their children’s best interest. They thereby bestowed upon them a tidy
emotional and moral entanglement for the future. The implications of this are
enormous since they suggest that Eastern Europe’s present Jewish population is
significantly more numerous than previously assumed.
The issue is attracting great global interest now that
the fourth generation of Holocaust survivors has come of age. One common
approach adopted by this self-confident generation of young adults is to reject
the caution of their forbears by publicly embracing their inheritance.
This raises a complex of issues explored by a recent
interdisciplinary conference here attracting participants from universities in
some 10 countries including Israel and the United States as well as Eastern
Europe. They considered a myriad of approaches to healing in the shadow of mass
racist murder during the war. They found that the intense revulsion and horror
generated by those events still show no sign of receding with the passage of
Hungary, the scene of the deadliest and most intensive
phase of the Holocaust during 1994/45, provided an appropriate venue for the
conference. The event coincided with the current rise of Holocaust-denial and
aggressive neo-Nazi agitation in Eastern Europe exploiting the economic
uncertainties in the wake of the most severe world recession since the war.
That is just what the Martons feared when they decided
after the Holocaust to bury their Jewish past. “Utterly secular themselves,”
Kati recalls, “they were permanently marked by Hungary’s antisemitism. They
wanted their children to be Christians, however much the state persecuted the
church. A bizarre and bewildering calculation on my parents’ part.”
At the height of the Cold War when most Hungarians
would cross the street to avoid being seen in the company of an American, the
Martons nightly visited the US diplomatic mission to pay bridge with friends.
They ostentatiously drove around the war-torn capital in a white Studebaker
convertible, one of the only 2,000 privately owned cars tolerated by the
authorities at the time in the whole of the country.
“We might as well have ridden a rocket,” Kati
remembers her early childhood experience. “It was obvious
even to a child that our family lived by different rules than everybody else. We
acted as if having British and American journalists and diplomats visiting our
home and inviting us to theirs, having a cook and a French nanny and going to
mass on Sundays, were not dangerous, provocative acts in the eyes of the
all-seeing authorities of the People’s Republic of Hungary. But if my parents
seemed so confident, surely we were safe.”
Endre had reported for the American Associated Press news
agency since 1947, Ilona for its rival United Press (now called United Press
International). Every one of their hundreds of news stories transmitted for
simultaneous, global syndication was monitored, translated, analysed and filed
for future reference by the dreaded Hungarian State Security Organization (AVO).
By 1950, the AVO already held 1,600 pages of copy in the Marton file. The couple
were also being spied on all the time by AVO agents including intimate
associates like the fiancée of a close friend and even the family’s baby sitter.
And they were aware of that.
Ilona had lots of journalistic virtues, but an aptitude
for writing was not one of them. So Endre routinely penned his wife’s news
articles as well as his own in addition to many of the lengthy and detailed spy
reports that their trusted acquaintances were obliged to file with the AVO. This
meant that the AVO were being briefed on the Martons by the Martons. Endre’s
reporter daughter wanders today where the man had found the nerve, the cheek and
the stamina. In the end, the couple were brought down by a spy operating inside
the American legation.
Their attempt to conceal their Jewish background after
the Holocaust betrays caution more than outweighed by their reckless game played
against the Communists. When the Soviets took over Hungary, Kati says, “my
parents openly aligned themselves with the new enemy: the Americans. How could
they have taken such risks? Having outwitted the Nazis, were they swollen with a
sense of immortality? Or did they just want to enjoy life again?
“They were still in their thirties, full of unspent
vitality. Suddenly they were sought after by Western visitors who had come to
witness the Sovietization of this unfortunate corner of Europe. Their English
was good and their manners and bridge game even better. Having such illustrious
friends may have given my parents a sense of invulnerability. After the stigma
of being Jews in an anti-Semitic society, what a balm that must have been...”
The Martons were arrested on trumped up spying charges in
1955. Endre was sentenced to 13
years’ imprisonment after lengthy, painful and brutal interrogations that
included sleep deprivation, Ilona to six. Their
children were placed under the care of strangers. Endre was broken by the prison
system and attempted suicide. But Ilona noted afterwards that the experience had
strengthened and perhaps even saved their marriage.
Under intense Western diplomatic pressure, they were
abruptly released in the confusion preceding the doomed anti-Soviet revolution
(that broke out just 54 years ago on October 23). Even so, Endre had to report
to the AVO for regular, detailed questioning by a member of that 31,000-strong
organization that kept watch over a population of fewer than 10m.
After the defeat of the revolution, they once again
remained the last Western correspondents in Budapest to cover the Soviet
invasion. In 1957, they managed to emigrate to America, where they continued to
work as journalists. Their brave and lucid reportage of the revolution earned
them several coveted prizes, including the prestigious the George Polk Award.
Endre’s recollection of these and related events were
published in Forbidden Sky: Inside the Hungarian Revolution (Little
Brown, 1971). Another, rare insight into Hungary’s resistance to tyranny as well
as the judicial and penal system of the country between the war and the
revolution is offered by György Faludy, one of the greatest poets of the 20th
century, in his 1962 autobiography My Happy Days in Hell, English
trans. by Kathleen Szasz, (just re-issued by Penguin Modern Classics,
London, ISBN 9780141193205, £12.99p, 522pp).
Kati was over 30 years of age when she learned that her
maternal grandparents had perished in Auschwitz together with some half a
million other Hungarian provincial Jews. Her father, a descendant of the chief
rabbi of Dobříš, an ancient town located south of Prague in today’s Czech
Republic, was unhappy at her discovery and embrace of her Jewish faith. She
records that these events “opened a sad rift between my parents and me”.
Endre’s parents were safely beyond his children’s
emotional scrutiny as they had emigrated to Australia. He
dealt with emotional matters in old age by claiming to have left
his feelings “at the barrier” when he was forced to give up his homeland for
permanent exile. Ilona almost never spoke of her own parents and, when she did,
she pretended that they had been killed in a wartime bombing raid. The family
home was bereft of any photograph or memento to remind the children that they
had ever existed. But when Kati sometimes asked her mother whether she looked
like her grandmother, wordless tears flooded Ilona’s eyes.
The loss and fortuitous recovery of Kati’s Jewish
identity is told in this, her seventh book. She describes it as “the most
painful and personal book that I have ever written”. It is an intimate inquiry
into her parents’ lives based on many sources including Communist secret police
files made accessible through the advent of democratic rule. The Martons always
avoided the subject of the family’s Jewish origins but, Kati states, seeing this
fact plainly confirmed in an AVO document “leaves not a trace of the doubt that
floated around this unspoken subject” throughout her childhood.
Her sixth book was The Great Escape: Nine Jews who
Fled Hitler and Changed the World (Simon & Schuster, 2006), a biography of
such Hungarian-born giants as the novelist and journalist Arthur Koestler, the
war photographer Robert Capa and the physicist Edward Teller who is also known
and the father of the hydrogen bomb. The first book she published was
Wallenberg: Missing Hero (Random House, 1982).
Today, Kati runs a Jewish household in New York City with
her husband Richard Holdbrooke, the author, journalist and top ranking American
diplomat whose secular Jewish mother fled Hamburg in 1933 to escape the
Holocaust. They were married in 1995 at the American ambassador’s residence here
Kati has received many prizes for her contributions to
such publications as The New Yorker and The Times of London.
These include the 2001 Rebekah Kohut Humanitarian Award of the National Council
of Jewish Women, the 2002 Matrix Award for Women Who Change the World, the
George Foster Peabody Award and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of
the Republic of Hungary, the highest civilian honour given in this country. She
is a director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Rescue
Committee, Human Rights Watch and the New America Foundation.
Similar life stories about the discovery of lost Jewish
roots reaching back to Eastern Europe are cropping up in many countries. Kati’s
story bears resemblances to that of Madeline Albright, the Czech-born journalist
an d academic who discovered her Jewish roots after her appointment in 1996 as
America’s first woman secretary of state to serve the Clinton Whitehouse.
A collection of 166 such case histories based on extended
interviews has been assembled by Barbara Kessel in Suddenly Jewish
(Brandeis, 2000 & 2007). One of the interviewees has become a rabbi.
The number of East European Jews still grappling in
silence with their concealed Jewish identity or still likely to discover their
Holocaust family secrets is impossible to estimate with confidence. Professor
Anthony Polonsky of the Institute of Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford, England,
puts the number of Jewish survivors in Poland alone who sought relief during the
Holocaust by assuming false Christian identities outside the ghettos and the
labour and extermination camps at 60,000; a third of whom, he thinks, may well
have held on to them after the war.
I know several second-generation East European
Holocaust survivors who have learned the truth of their origins late in life.
They tend to be unhappy people burdened much of their lives by an unidentified
sense of guilt that they were brought up never to investigate.
The most poignant such story I know appears in a landmark
journalistic investigation into the rescue of people from the Nazis --
Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul
Wallenberg, Missing Hero of the Holocaust by John
Bierman (Allen Lane, 1981). The book describes how the Swedish diplomat gave up
his own bed to enable a pregnant Jewess to give birth in peace. Baby Yvonne as
well as her young parents survived and eventually emigrated to Toronto where she
was brought up, like Kati, as a devout Roman Catholic. When she came of age, she
fell in love with a Jew. Her parents objected to the marriage on religious
grounds. She defied them and, unaware of her true identity, she converted to
Judaism in order to marry the man she loved.