Saturday, November 21, 2009

Kati Marton

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A child in communist Hungary

Little girls, big story

Nov 19th 2009
From The Economist print edition

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Getty Images

Capitalist rulers are so much nicer

Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America. By Kati Marton. Simon & Schuster; 288 pages; $26. Buy from

COMMUNIST bullies had a nasty trick when dealing with opponents who had children: they took them away, sometimes to be adopted by childless party stalwarts, in nastier cases to be sent to orphanages and treated as the children of criminals, or even to be consigned to an asylum. In retrospect it seems astonishing that Endre and Ilona Marton, a married couple working for American news agencies in Hungary at the height of the Stalinist era, exposed their two small daughters to such risks, their greatest fear. But they did. Decades later the younger, Kati (pictured with Bill Clinton), has pieced together her family’s missing history, a series of torments that epitomises the human cost of the communist seizure of central Europe.

Ms Marton’s main source is the now declassified secret-police files compiled by the AVO, Hungary’s version of the KGB. They chronicled minutely her parents’ professional and social lives, which moved in ever-decreasing circles as the communist grip on Hungary tightened. Sometimes the result is welcome: an AVO snooper’s stolid note brings back long-forgotten memories of a summer picnic. More often it is grim: almost everyone, it turns out, was informing on the Martons, from neighbours to the nanny. Through it all, her father baffled his persecutors, who could not believe that the suave, stylish polyglot was just what he claimed to be: a hard-living, hard-playing newsman. His undoing came when a traitor in the American embassy reported that he had lent to officials there a copy of an official document, the state budget. Not exactly a secret, but pretext enough to send him to be broken in the AVO’s dungeons.

Few grown-ups come out well in this story. Hungarian officials were callous and uncomprehending. Friends proved unreliable. Mr Marton’s American employers dithered, while American diplomats doubted the Martons’ reliability. Mr Marton’s bravado remains incomprehensible, even to his adoring daughter 50 years later. In the midst of it all are two little girls, precociously aware of the dramas swirling around them, left crying on the pavement when their mother is snatched from their home to join their father in jail. A Utah couple, reading that the girls were being brought up by strangers, offered, in vain, to adopt them.

Ms Marton avoids being too self-centred or sentimental as she tells the story. She highlights uncomfortable discoveries—her parents’ infidelities, that her grandparents perished at Auschwitz—as well as noble ones. Her descriptions of Hungary, of communist history and of secret-police tactics are all sharply drawn. So is the portrayal of the family’s life in America: they managed to escape after the 1956 uprising. The happy ending comes as a great relief after so many nerve-racking pages.

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