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Originally published Friday, November 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Great Escape": A compendium of great Hungarians

"The Great Escape" is a good fit for Kati Marton's multifarious talents, requiring deep knowledge of the history and culture of Budapest, the...

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World"
by Kati Marton
Simon & Schuster,
271 pp., $27

"The Great Escape" is a good fit for Kati Marton's multifarious talents, requiring deep knowledge of the history and culture of Budapest, the analytical abilities of a seasoned reporter and a keen understanding of what it means to leave one's country behind.

The award-laden and best-selling Marton is a globe-trotting broadcast journalist and author who could probably cut through wire with her brain. As the old joke goes, she's already forgotten more than most of us will ever learn.

Her latest work traces the far-flung lives of nine remarkable men spawned by the artistic and intellectually rich society of Budapest, before rising anti-Semitism, fascism and Nazi horror laid waste to its golden age.

A few of the men are widely known by name today; most are not. All made remarkable contributions, both revered and reviled, and all were secular Jews: Edward Teller, the nuclear physicist who developed the hydrogen bomb; physicists Leo Szilard and Nobel Prize-winner Eugene Wigner, young men who bravely pushed for awareness of the atomic bomb's danger; filmmakers Alexander Korda and Michael Curtiz ("The Third Man" and "Casablanca," respectively); writer Arthur Koestler, noted for his early exposure of Stalin's evil; photographers Robert Capa and André Kertész, who preserved the harsh realities of battlefields and city streets; and computer pioneer John von Neumann.

Marton depicts each man as a force in his own right, yet bound to the others by the tough connective tissue of place and politics; by what novelist Koestler called the "collective neurosis" of the Hungarian, separated from Europe by language and history. She unites them through their iconoclasm, framing them as products of the same "intense intellectual ferment, the political turmoil, and terrible drama that had created a generation of Hungarians who, finding their native land suddenly hostile and dangerous, had left to make their marks in the larger world."

While the work of uncovering this neglected piece of history required the skills of a worldly journalist, the telling came from the heart. It is an intensely personal project for Marton, who was born into a middle-class Jewish-Hungarian family in Budapest. Her parents, journalists who had been imprisoned as spies during the Cold War, raised their two daughters as Catholics, and escaped with the girls in 1957, after the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union was crushed in November 1956.

"These nine people seemed very familiar to me," writes Marton in her introduction. When she discovered that physicist Leo Szilard always had a packed bag ready in case he needed to flee, she recalled her own mother: "Forty years after she fled Hungary for the security of the United States, she still answered the telephone with a somewhat tremulous 'Hello?' as if braced for bad news."

This is a book that should be read with special care, lest it become overwhelming in its swift movement through time, place and personal stories. It benefits from deliberate thinking time between chapters, from stopping to look up secondary characters (online or in one's favorite reference books) while moving through its pages. "The Great Escape" is more a lively seminar than single volume of history; treating it as such will maximize its strengths.

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