Andre Kertesz and Robert Capa blew up photographs. Edward Teller and Leo Szilard blew up atoms. They were Hungarian. They were Jews. It must have been something in the water.
Herself the child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Marton (A Death in Jerusalem, 1994) offers a competently written treatise that is light on theory but long on description. Is it anything more than an accident that Arthur Koestler, Michael Curtiz, John von Neumann and other of her case studies were born in Budapest? No, but there was definitely something astir culturally and intellectually at the end of the Habsburg era, and, as Marton notes, more than a dozen Nobel Prize–winners came from that place in that generation, and it is clear that the Hungarian capital was a Central European rejoinder to Athens and Florence. Then came the likes of Admiral Horthy and a homegrown fascist regime, even before the time of Hitler and Eichmann, and that gifted generation scattered, with a disproportionate number going to the U.S. (Koestler pointedly went to England, Marton notes, because he felt that the U.S. was too far removed from the humanist tradition.) Their arrival occasions purplish enthusiasm on Marton’s part, as here: “What did the young man late from Budapest’s noisy boulevards make of the soft pink avenues of Beverly Hills, or Santa Monica’s stretch of pale sand?” She is on to something more useful when she remarks that her nine subjects were double and perhaps even triple outsiders, since they were Jews in a “small, linguistically impenetrable, landlocked country”—and, moreover, nonobservant Jews whose families were generally assimilated, to say nothing of being geniuses in an ordinary world. Whatever the case, Hungary’s loss was surely the gain of several disciplines: photography, filmmaking, literature, journalism, economics and, of course, nuclear physics.
More a nicely assembled collection of anecdotes than a sustained narrative.