Kati Marton’s memoir about her parents’ experiences in Cold War Budapest has been nominated for the National Book Critics Award. It is a fascinating and well-told story about courage, survival, love and betrayal during a period in European history that still gives pause and chills.
Marton’s parents, Endre and Ilona, were Hungarian correspondents for the AP and UPI, and were well known among Budapest’s Western community, particularly the American and British community there. Marton’s parents’ best friends were American diplomats and journalists.
In her book, Kati Marton describes in vivid detail the account of her parents’ arrest, the separation from their two children (Kati and her sister Julia), and the imprisonment that followed. As Kati writes, “All my life, my parents’ defiance of the Communists, their stubborn courage as the last independent journalists behind the Iron Curtain until their arrest, trial, and conviction as CIA spies, has been at the core of our family identity.”
But her parents were reluctant to talk about their past, even with their own children. As Marton writes: “My parents were forward looking people. They looked back only selectively.” Among the things they didn’t discuss with their children was their Jewish heritage. Kati only discovered as an adult that her parents were Jewish, though both of her parents had been baptized Christian and she and her sister regularly attended Mass in Budapest in the Fifties.
While the story itself is riveting, the story behind the story is equally compelling. Toward the end of Endre Marton’s life, he was given Hungary’s highest civilian award, from the foreign minister. Kati accepted on behalf of her father and at the event the foreign minister surprised Marton with a large manila envelope addressed to her father. The envelope contained AVO (the Hungarian Secret Police) information on her parents. Her father never opened the envelope. After he died in 2005, Kati opened the envelope and began reading the file. She writes in the book: “I wept, for I had not known the depth of their [her parents] humiliation. They were watched, stalked, and treated as Enemies of the People by both Fascists and Communists…”
Aside from the events in Hungary—including a failed uprising against the Communists in 1956—and her parents’ experiences, the book provides Kati Marton, the daughter, with a great gift – the opportunity to appreciate the love her father had for his two daughters. As she writes: “Thanks to the files, I know that his children were my father’s greatest weakness, the only soft spot agents on both continents [Europe an d America] could identify.”
Fortunately, for Kati, her parents and sister Julia, the story ends well. And fortunately, for readers of this book, we gain an understanding of a time and place in history that is important to know about. Living in America, it is difficult to imagine what so many of our immigrants endured before arriving here. Enemies of the People reminds us of what America means to so many people.
250 pages; Simon and Schuster