Kati Comes Home: East European Jewry Confronts Its Holocaust Secrets

by Thomas Ország-Land (May 2010)

Kati Marton, an award-winning American foreign correspondent, was researching a book on 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…”

Until that moment, the reporter thought she had been born and bred a Catholic, and was faithfully attending mass every week! The memoir Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, 272pp., ISBN 978-1-4165-8612-8, $26) 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 Communist occupiers of Hungary, and who tragically kept their Jewish origins 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, also highlighting the loss and fortuitous recovery of her Jewish identity. The story is carefully researched and skilfully related, juxtaposing the innocent view of the child who witnessed the early events of the book 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 also 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 were regarded then as arch enemies of Hungary.

The Martons 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 have thereby bestowed upon them a tangled emotional and moral legacy 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 landmark interdisciplinary conference here in Budapest late last year 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 time.

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 daughters to be Christians, however much the state persecuted the church. A bizarre and bewildering calculation on my parents’ part.” This was not for lack courage.

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 play 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 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 fiancee 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 wonders today where the man had found the nerve, the cheek and the stamina… But in the end, the couple were brought down by a spy operating inside the American legation who had the means to record their private conversations inside that building.

The Martons’ 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 writes, “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 to commit 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 1956 revolution. 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 under 10m.

After the defeat of the revolution, they once again remained the last Western correspondents in Budapest, this time to cover the Soviet invasion. Later on, 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 George Polk Award. Endre’s recollection of these and related events were published in Forbidden Sky: Inside the Hungarian Revolution (Little Brown, 1971).

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 Dobríš, 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 war-time 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.

This is Kati’s seventh book. She describes it as “the most painful and personal one 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 known as “the father of the H-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 Holbrooke, the author, journalist and top ranking American diplomat whose secular Jewish mother fled Hamburg in 1933 to escape the Holocaust. They were married at the American ambassador’s residence here in Budapest in 1995.

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 Madeline Albright, the Czech-born journalist 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 either grappling in silence with their concealed Jewish identity or still unaware of their Holocaust family secrets is impossible to estimate with confidence. But there are reliable indications. Professor Anthony Polonsky of the Institute of Polish-Jewish Relations in Oxford, England, thus puts the number of Jewish survivors in Poland alone who sought safety during the Holocaust by assuming false Christian identities outside the ghettos and the labour and extermination camps at 60,000. He authoritatively reckons that a third of them may well have held on to their new identities 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 for 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, Yvonne 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.

THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from Budapest. His next book will be Christmas in Auschwitz: Holocaust Poetry Translated from the Hungarian of András Mezei (Smokestack, 2010).


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