The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World

  • Review
By – October 26, 2011

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.

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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