Behind the Iron Curtain

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 18, 2009


My Family's Journey to America

By Kati Marton

Simon & Schuster. 272 pp. $26

The family about which Kati Marton writes is her own. A moderately well-known and exceedingly well-connected print and broadcast journalist in New York, she is a native Hungarian who lived the first eight years of her life in a country under the repressive communist rule of the dictator Matyas Rakosi. She was born in 1949, the daughter of a prominent Hungarian journalist, the Associated Press correspondent Endre Marton, and his wife, Ilona, also a journalist. They were brave people who paid for their courage by being sent to prison, leaving their two young daughters to live with a family "willing to take us in for a certain monthly sum."

Marton's story, then, is one of bravery, suffering, survival and vindication. She tells it in straightforward, lucid prose -- no small accomplishment, considering that English is not her native language -- and with her emotions well under control. This is not a woe-is-me memoir of the sort so much in fashion these days, but a carefully reported, almost clinical account of what it is like to live in a totalitarian state and how hard it is to escape from it. It is much less a memoir of Marton's childhood than a joint biography of her remarkable parents.

She couldn't have written it a couple of decades ago, when Hungary was still in the orbit of the Soviet Union; it was not until later that Hungarian law made it possible for her to read "my family's files, kept by the AVO -- the dreaded Hungarian Secret Police -- in its Budapest archives." Those files, "which I read and translated from Hungarian, were my primary source for the precise details of the Terror State's twenty years of near total surveillance of our family and my parents' prison torment." She had her own memories, as well as a published memoir by her father ("The Forbidden Sky," 1971) and an unpublished one by her mother, but the AVO files were the key to making this book possible.

Marton made her first visit to the AVO archives several years ago. She was met by Katalin Kutrucz, head of the archives, who brought out the "hundreds of pages of our family file" and, "reading my thoughts," said: "Everybody in your circle, whether your parents trusted or did not trust them, was informing on them. That was just the way it was." It was a state that institutionalized informing as a way of life:

"The main instrument of Sovietization was the AVO, which reported directly to Stalin's secret services -- the NKVD and the KGB. Set up in September 1946 (in the same elegant Renaissance palazzo where I would read my parents' files), it had seventeen divisions, each with a special function. Everybody knew that the Red Army stood squarely behind the AVO, which was in effect a Soviet party within the Hungarian Communist Party. Its chief characteristic, I would learn growing up, was a brutality against which ordinary political and diplomatic actions were useless. Division One was supposed to infiltrate and control Hungarian political life, through a vast network of informers, usually recruited through intimidation. Typically, targets would be snatched from their beds late at night, and released on condition that they would become informers. This included, as I now learn, most of my family's immediate circle."

The Martons were of particular interest to the AVO because of Endre and Ilona's high positions in Budapest journalistic circles and because they were especially close to many people in the American legation there. Endre was "a fully accredited, full-time AP correspondent" while Ilona had "a similar post from the rival United Press": "My mother was a sharp observer and a witty commentator," but "she was no writer," so "unbeknownst to the wire services, my father was filing for both AP and UP." Both had "barely survived the Nazis" in World War II, yet they were not cowed by the experience:

"When the Communists took over Hungary, my parents brazenly and 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, and suddenly sought after by American and British diplomats and journalists, who had come to witness the Sovietization of this unfortunate corner of Central Europe. Their English was good and their manners and bridge game even better. Having such 'powerful' 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."

They were very good at what they did. "Your mother and father were indispensable," an American journalist told Marton. "They gave us leads that we didn't have. They were models of what journalists should be under difficult circumstances. They were bright, and had such charm and such professional integrity. We had this intimate bond. We really cared about them. We knew they were on thin ice. But they just kept on reporting." The ice grew thinner as Rakosi's government gradually expelled all Western journalists, leaving the Martons, in effect, the outside world's only reliable source of information about what was going on in Hungary.

Not surprisingly, Rakosi and his apparatchiks didn't like this one bit. They persuaded themselves that the Martons were involved in "espionage activities pursued by the American embassy," the next step being to arrest Endre in early 1955 and to interrogate him mercilessly for months on end. To be sure, he had been reckless in some of his dealings with the Americans, but he had done nothing to betray Hungary -- he was in fact a passionately patriotic Hungarian -- and was guilty of nothing. Yet eventually he began to feel himself guilty of something: "This is the ultimate triumph of totalitarianism: the victim who seeks blame for himself."

Next to go to prison was Ilona. In due time Endre was charged with being a "permanent advisor" to the Americans, and Ilona faced the "laughable" charge of "discussing the price of eggs (and meat) with the Americans," which was "a treasonable offense in Rakosi's Hungary." Endre was sentenced to six years in prison, Ilona to three. Then, with no warning, she was released and he was pardoned, probably because of intense diplomatic pressure from the West. They rejoined the girls, reclaimed their old apartment and went to work, which in November 1956 meant covering the heartbreakingly abortive Hungarian Revolution. Endre's coverage was bold and brilliant, and when the family escaped to the United States the next year he was given "a special George Polk Memorial Award for 'distinguished achievements in journalism.' " That was the beginning of a long and successful American career with the AP, working out of Washington and living with his family in Bethesda -- all the while spied upon by the AVO and its agents.

It's a terrific story, and Marton tells it very well. She deeply admires her parents but doesn't romanticize them or try to explain away their penchant for dangerous risk-taking. She isn't sure that either of them would like the book, as they didn't like their secrets told, but the reader surely will feel, as I do, that it is a powerful tribute to them.

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