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Reporter Ilona Marton Dies at 92

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2004; Page B07

Ilona Marton, 92, who died of pancreatic cancer Saturday at the Bedford Court retirement facility in Silver Spring, was variously a Hungarian political prisoner, reporter, refugee and high school French teacher.

Dr. Marton was the daughter of Jewish concentration camp victims and spent much of her early life redefining herself to survive in her native Hungary. She changed her name and assumed an identity as a Catholic.

Ilona Marton, above, walks in Vienna's Heroes Square in 1957 with her husband, Endre, and daughters, Kati, 10, left, and Julia, 11. The family had been spirited out of Hungary after Soviet troops entered Budapest. At left, the Martons receive the George Polk Award for journalism shortly after arriving in the United States. (AP Photos)

Her public reputation formed as a United Press correspondent in her homeland, where she covered communist show trials during the period of early Soviet control. The authorities soon jailed her and her husband, a Hungarian national reporting for the Associated Press, on sham espionage charges.

After serving months in a maximum-security prison, the Martons were released. They then covered the disastrous 1956 rebellion against the communist regime and jointly won the prestigious George Polk Award for their dispatches.

Before another crackdown by the Soviet-controlled government, the Martons were smuggled to the United States with their two daughters and a few suitcases.

They led a comparatively quiet life in the Washington area, where Dr. Marton's husband was a reporter, author and university lecturer. Dr. Marton taught French at the old Robert E. Peary High School in Rockville and Albert Einstein High School in Kensington before retiring in 1975.

She was vague about the details of her early life -- she told family members that her maiden name was Neuman or Neumann, and she never clarified the correct spelling.

She was born March 14, 1912, in the Hungarian industrial city of Miskolc. At 19, she changed her last name to Nyilas.

Her father was a horse breeder whose frequent gambling losses were of great trepidation to the family. He once came home with a silver-tipped umbrella and announced that it was all the family owned.

Her parents perished during the swift Nazi invasion of Hungary in early 1944. Her mother had managed to sneak a postcard through the crack of a train that led her away to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

At that time, Dr. Marton was a history teacher in Budapest. She had received a master's degree in history and a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Debrecen.

She had been married briefly to a wealthy, much older man, Sandor Brody. After divorcing him, she married a young reporter she met at a bridge game, Endre Marton, in 1943.

Starting in the late 1940s, when she joined United Press, she began competing with her husband for stories. They covered the puppet trial of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who had initially been given a death sentence.

Their reporting, as some of the last full-time members of a Western press organization working in Eastern Europe, made them high-profile journalists and of great interest to communist authorities.

In February 1955, the Martons had returned from a party at the U.S. Embassy when six men concealed in the shadows of their garage arrested Endre Marton on charges of "espionage and plotting against the people's democratic regime."

He was alleged to have furnished the U.S. ambassador with state secrets.

Dr. Marton was taken away that June, when four burly men in overalls burst into her home. She arranged for her daughters to stay with strangers sympathetic to her plight.

She was sentenced to three years in jail, half of her husband's term. Both were released in 1956 during a period of clemency for political prisoners.

Dr. Marton returned to covering the revolution, which began that October in response to renewed call by the Communist Party to limit freedoms of expression.

She plied young revolutionaries with American cigarettes to get them to tell their stories. Thousands of them were killed by government forces.

In one account, she described the revolution's appeal: that millions who were raised to fear and worship Soviet leader Joseph Stalin were, after his death in 1953, awash in news about his failings.

"The god they idolized was just a man with many sins," she wrote.

When Soviet troops entered Budapest to quell the rebellion in November 1956, the Martons again were susceptible to arrest. They fled to the U.S. legation, where Mindszenty also was in hiding, and were spirited out of the country, first to Vienna and then to New York.

They were hailed by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for providing "a solid basis for the free world['s] judgment" of events in Budapest.

Besides her husband, of Silver Spring, survivors include three children, Julia Marton-Lefevre of London, Kati Marton of New York and Andrew Marton of Fort Worth; a sister; and four grandchildren.

Through her daughter Kati, a journalist and author, Dr. Marton has been the mother-in-law of broadcaster Peter Jennings and U.S. diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company