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

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9780743261159: The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World

Traces the early twentieth century journey of nine men from Budapest--including Edward Teller, Robert Capa, and Michael Curtiz--who fled fascism and anti-Semitism to seek sanctuary in America, where they made pivotal contributions to such causes as the development of the atomic bomb, the creation of the computer, and the evolution of modern photojournalism. 50,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Kati Marton, an award-winning former NPR and ABC News correspondent, is the author of Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History, a New York Times bestseller, as well as Wallenberg, The Polk Conspiracy, A Death in Jerusalem, and a novel, An American Woman. Mother of a son and a daughter, she lives in New York with her husband, Richard Holbrooke.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

Magic in Their Pockets

On a muggy day in July of 1939, two young physicists got into a blue Dodge coupé, crossed the Triborough Bridge, and drove past the futuristic World's Fair pavilion, passing fruit stands, vineyards, and modest farmhouses along Route 25, much of which was still unpaved, looking for the world's most famous scientist, Albert Einstein, who was spending the summer on Long Island. Their trip, and a second shortly thereafter, would have historic consequences.

Inside the car, which was his, Eugene Wigner, wispy-voiced and as unprepossessing as a small-town pharmacist, listened patiently to the intense, curly-haired Leo Szilard. Wigner always let his friend, whom he called "The General," think he was in charge, but Wigner's piercing eyes, hidden behind steel-rimmed glasses, missed nothing. As they drove, they argued in their native tongue, Hungarian, about what they would say to the great man.

Deep in a typically heated conversation, the two Hungarians got lost. For two hours they drove around the South Shore; Einstein's retreat, however, was in Peconic, on the North. Finally, they found Peconic, but the roads and gray shingle houses all looked identical to the pudgy Szilard, sweaty in his gray wool suit. Agitated, he began to think that fate might be against their bold step. The cooler Wigner calmed him down. "Let's just ask somebody where Einstein lives," he suggested. "Everybody knows who Einstein is." Finally, a boy of about seven pointed his fishing rod toward a one-story house with a screened front porch.

The sixty-year-old Einstein welcomed his visitors, old friends from Berlin days, wearing a white undershirt and rolled-up trousers. He had spent the morning sailing. Szilard and Wigner now switched to German and went straight to the point; they were in no mood for small talk. Einstein was aware of recent experiments in Germany suggesting that if neutrons bombarded uranium a nuclear chain reaction could be created. But the second part of the Hungarians' message was news to Einstein: that a nuclear chain reaction could lead to incredibly powerful bombs -- atomic bombs! Shaking his famous white mane, Einstein said, "Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht" -- I had not thought of that at all. But Einstein's former colleagues at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, Szilard warned, appeared to be closing in on the discovery. Until that moment, Einstein, the man whose theories had launched the revolution in physics, had not believed that atomic energy would be liberated "in my lifetime." Now he saw how his famous equation of 1905, E=mc2, might apply to the explosive release of energy from mass, using uranium bombs.

Though a pacifist, Einstein well understood the Nazi threat; like Szilard and Wigner, he had left Germany because of Adolf Hitler. So the father of relativity signed a letter, prepared primarily by Szilard, to the Belgian ambassador in Washington, warning the Belgian government that bombs of unimaginable power could be made out of uranium, whose primary source was the Belgian Congo. Then Einstein returned to his dinghy, and the two Hungarians drove back to the city.

Szilard worried that this would not be enough: should they not also alert President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? "We did not know our way around in America," Szilard later recalled. But he knew an investment banker named Alexander Sachs, a friend of the president who did know Washington. After Szilard talked to Sachs, the banker concurred: the president must be told.

So two weeks later, on Sunday, July 30, Szilard returned to Einstein's cottage. Wigner was in California, so Szilard -- who did not know how to drive -- turned to another Hungarian, who owned a 1935 Plymouth: a young physics professor at Columbia University named Edward Teller. (Teller would later joke that he entered history as Leo Szilard's chauffeur.) Together Szilard and his bushy-browed driver extracted a second letter from Einstein. It was probably the most important letter of the twentieth century.

"I believe," the greatest scientist of the century wrote to the most important political leader of the age, "it is my duty to bring to your attention...that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable -- though much less certain -- that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.

"The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo.

"In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America." (Emphasis added.)

Szilard believed that such a letter, signed by none other than Albert Einstein, would get immediate attention. But it did not. On September 1, 1939, when Hitler attacked Poland, Einstein's letter lay unread somewhere in FDR's in-box.

Einstein's letter was finally brought directly to FDR's attention by Sachs on October 11, and began the process that would lead to the creation of the Manhattan Project -- the top secret government effort to build the atom bomb. But Roosevelt had no idea that the letter was the work of three Hungarian refugees who were not yet American citizens.

It was altogether fitting that these products of Budapest's Golden Age would stimulate the most momentous scientific-military enterprise of the twentieth century, leading to the Manhattan Project, and, after that, Hiroshima. Szilard, Wigner, and Teller -- these men were just part of a group of Hungarians who, after fleeing fascist Budapest in the 1920s and 1930s, brought their distinctive outlook on life, science, and culture to the United States and Western Europe -- and played immensely important roles in shaping the mid-twentieth-century world. Forced into exile by the rising tide of fascism, they would alter the way we fight and prevent wars, help shape those most modern art forms, photography and the movies, and transform the music we listen to.

This is the tale of some of them -- specifically, four scientists, two photographers, two film directors, and a writer -- who, collectively, helped usher in the nuclear age and the age of the computer, who left us some of our most beloved movies and many of the most enduring images of the violent century they navigated. The currents of twentieth-century history, science, culture, and politics entered them as young men in Budapest, and as they crossed borders and oceans in search of safety, they carried with them only their genius and ideas -- truly they had magic in their pockets.

Who were these men, and where did they come from? Was it simply a coincidence that they were from such a strange little country, with a language incomprehensible to the rest of the world? Or was there something peculiar about that country and that city at that time that created, in so many different fields, so many unusual people?

Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner -- along with another genius from Budapest, John von Neumann -- brought to America more than the physics revolution. Having saved themselves from Hitler, they were determined to alert their new nation to the mounting danger. Buffeted by every political upheaval of the century, the four scientists, and the others in this narrative, were in the vanguard of an early warning system. Working in vastly different fields, they tried to rouse a world still averting its gaze from the gathering storm. As the scientists pushed for the atom bomb, Arthur Koestler was writing Darkness at Noon, the first real exposé of Stalinist brutality to achieve worldwide fame. Michael Curtiz was making Casablanca, as much a call to anti-fascist arms as it is a romance. Robert Capa was making an immortal photographic record of the helpless victims of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's indiscriminate aerial bombs, photographs to stand alongside Pablo Picasso's Guernica in the field of art as political statement.

This is the chronicle of the remarkable journey of nine men from Budapest to the New World, how they strove and what they learned along the way, and the imprint they made on America and the world.

Some of the nine -- Robert Capa and Edward Teller -- are famous, others less so, but of equal consequence. John von Neumann, widely believed by his contemporaries to be the smartest of them all, pioneered the electronic computer and invented Game Theory. Andre Kertesz, along with Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, virtually invented modern photojournalism. The names of Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda may be less well known today, but their work is immortal. Curtiz's Casablanca is the most popular romantic film of all time. Korda, whose life story is more fanciful than any Hollywood fabrication, also left enduring movies; in 1994 the New York Times called Korda's The Third Man "one of the finest films ever made," a widely held judgment. Arthur Koestler is on every list of the twentieth century's greatest political writers.

They had in common, first of all, a time and a place. They were members of the same generation, roughly spanning the last decade of the nineteenth century until the outbreak of World War I. All they would become started in the city of their birth, Budapest. They were by no means unique in Budapest in its brief Golden Age; gifted men, and transforming figures, but these nine were but the tip of an iceberg of talent that came out of Budapest. Over a dozen Nobel Prize winners emerged from roughly the same generation of ...

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