Imagine how different the world would be if Hitler had not been such a madman. European science would be the world’s leader in innovation, weaponry would take a back seat to peaceful use of atomic energy, and culture would be represented by extraordinary movies, photographs, and literature. Instead, Hitler’s lethal need for conquest and his obsession with the annihilation of Jews altered the world. Europe was transformed, Judaism ultimately survived and America emerged as the world’s most powerful nation.
Ironically, driving many of these developments were survivors of the Holocaust, either those who were fortunate or prescient enough to have escaped from Europe before the Nazi noose tightened, or those who outlasted the “final solution” and were liberated from the camps after the war. This provides the basis for Kati Marton’s poignant depiction of The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. Marton relates how scientists Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner; filmmakers Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda; photographers Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz; and author Arthur Koestler responded to their exile from Hungary by reinventing themselves. They became brilliant intellectual revolutionaries whose contributions to America’s survival and ultimate post-war prosperity were vital and indispensable.
Herself a Hungarian émigré, Marton’s love for Hungary is palpable. She attempts to explain the creative energy that enabled this generation of Budapest youth, in a “brief Golden Age,” to produce more than a dozen Nobel laureates, as well as a host of gifted composers, musicians, and artists. Was it because Jewish young people were thoroughly integrated into Budapest’s “academic and cultural — though not its political — institutions,” as she observes? Was it their families’ rejection of the confining nature of shtetl life? Or was it the intellectual synergy that they enjoyed? The cruelty, of course, is that one is left to muse about “how much more potential was trapped inside the city as its brief moment of magic and opportunity turned into a fascist hell in 1944.”
Of this group, only Wigner was awarded a Nobel Prize, in physics, yet Teller and Szilard were instrumental in creating the Nuclear Age. Szilard ultimately embraced pacifism while the hawkish Teller supplied Ronald Reagan with the theory behind the Strategic Defense Initiative, mocked by its critics as “Star Wars.” So tortured was Szilard by the possibility of a nuclear accident, reveals Marton, that after 1933 he always kept two packed bags with family and patent records at the ready.
Von Neumann is generally credited with having invented the modern digital computer. It was this electronic brain, with its capacity for lightning quick calculations, that hastened the development of the plutonium bomb. Korda gave birth to Orson Welles as The Third Man and Curtiz brought Bogart and Bergman to Casablanca. Koestler exposed the terror of the Gulag in Darkness at Noon. Capa’s camera uniquely revealed the horror of death in battle, and through Kertesz’s lens, the simplicity of Budafok became a visual representation of Hungarian life. Marton appreciatively presents these people and their time. She invites the reader into a vanished world and lovingly illustrates genius in all its complexity.