The Millions Interview: Kati Marton

March 30, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 5 12 min read

coverIn her new book, Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America, Kati Marton tells the story of her parents, Endre and Ilona, who were, for a very brief moment after Hungary’s 1956 revolution, among the most famous anti-communist dissidents in the world. Both were journalists working for Western wire services and quite open about their pro-American sympathies while living in Hungary under the Stalinist dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were jailed and tortured, only to be released a few short months before the revolution. After the revolution failed, and thanks to the assistance of key contacts across the Iron Curtain, the family made their way to the states, where they eventually settled down to a quiet life in Bethesda, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. The book is structured with all the slow reveals of a good suspense novel and Marton herself calls it “one of the rare cold war thrillers with a happy ending.”

Marton has had a distinguished career as a journalist at ABC and NPR, and since retiring from the profession, has written a series of histories aimed at a popular audience. She has two children from a previous marriage to Peter Jennings. We spoke by phone on Feb. 24, she in Washington, me a few miles away in Maryland. She was in town to see her husband, Richard Holbrooke, who had just returned from a trip to Afghanistan. What follows is a slightly pared-down version of our full conversation.

The Millions: The history of children of freedom fighters is a long story of children on some level resenting their parents, feeling their parents have given themselves over to a cause while neglecting their roles as parents. But your book is very much a love letter to your father and mother. Even at the points of greatest tension in your parents’ lives, they’re teaching you and your sister how to ski and comforting you when you’re sick. But is there a part of you then, or at anytime of your life, or now, that resents your parents for putting themselves at so much risk, thus risking you growing up without parents?

Kati Marton: The essential mystery of my childhood, one of the reasons I had to go back and had to get into the secret police files after both my parents passed away four years ago, was that very question: “Why did they take such risk?” And I have to say that I owe the Hungarian Secret Police [AVO] — one of the world’s worst, most treacherous bodies — the answer to that question, because as a result of 20 years of absolutely relentless surveillance I now understand my parents much more. I now understand their motives much more.

I do not hold my parents up as models of parenting. I’m a parent myself and I don’t think I would have made some of the calls that they made, specifically signing up with the Americans from the beginning of the cold war when that was just the most dangerous thing that any Hungarian could do. And then being very flagrant about their support of America in the cold war while working as Hungarians behind the Iron Curtain, behind enemy lines. I don’t think I would have had the courage or, frankly, the recklessness to do that. But I understand why they did that and although, as you say, the book is a, I’m hoping, loving portrait of my parents, it’s also an honest one and an unvarnished one. I think they come across as very human, and their motives very mixed, as all our motives are. They were not saints by any measure.

In my younger days I had them on a much higher pedestal. Now I feel like, “I get these people. I get their motives.” And they are people that I hugely admire and would have liked to have known even if they had not been my parents because they’re so interesting as characters… But I don’t think the book is just a big wet kiss to my parents. I think I tried very hard to be straight and to look at them with straight eyes and above all not to be too sentimental in my judgments of them.

TM: Near the beginning of the book you go into some detail about your father’s complicated feelings towards his Jewish background.

KM: Yes.

TM: That story, by the way, is a very common one among Holocaust survivors. Part of the way they managed to survive the Holocaust was to emotionally divorce themselves from their Jewishness.

KM: Yes, can I just jump in there? Neither of my parents were brought up in the Jewish faith. And they came of age in a period of European history when religion — this was before Hitler — when religion was not very important. Science and reason and knowledge were the new gods of the early 20th century. And they frankly considered religion, any kind of religion, as kind of backward mumbo jumbo. Neither of them had any roots in the Jewish faith. They identified themselves not as people of faith but as Hungarians, very proud Hungarians, which they were until Hitler’s brand of fanaticism made it impossible not to embrace a religion that they didn’t feel very close to at the beginning. So they never had comfort from their faith. They weren’t religious people. And they didn’t see any reason to apologize for that. They were both intellectuals. They each had a Ph.D. And I think that they were so marked by the Holocaust and the speed with which their own countrymen turned on Jews — even Jews who had converted to Christianity as my parents had — that I think for the rest of their lives they were suffering from post-traumatic shock.

TM: You don’t fully accept that they don’t tell you about your Jewish background until you’re well into adulthood.

KM: I don’t. That’s one of the aspects of the complex characters that are my parents that I don’t respect, I don’t agree with. And I think in the end they admitted they made a mistake by withholding some information so fundamental from their children…

TM: Is there a reason why you chose to put that discussion at the beginning of your book? That fact shadows much of the rest of the book even though you don’t constantly bring it up.

KM: I thought it was important to give their background but I heartily disagree with you. This is a book about terror and surveillance and how the terror state functioned… which is by fear, which is by implicating the whole population, making everybody in a sense complicit in the way that it turned even our closest friends and relatives into informers. I think that is the theme. And how these two people, my mother and father, survived. More than survived. They survived with their heads held high. They survived the very brief but very brutal Hungarian Holocaust which was really just the last six months of the war. And then survived a maximum-security communist prison with their humanity intact, so much so, that they came to this country and began new lives at an advanced age – they were both well into their 40’s – and started a new life, and raised very optimistic children.

The arc of the story is how they hit rock bottom under the most brutal treatment. In my father’s case, twice trying to commit suicide. It’s a very shattering thing for his child, namely me, to read about that. And their marriage is also on the brink when they’re arrested. In fact, my mother always used to say, “Well, prison saved our marriage.” And I never understood what she meant by that, but now I do because I see they were both involved with other people when they were arrested and then in prison they actually observed each other’s courage. They fell in love all over again. They got out of prison. They had a) a new marriage and my younger brother is the product of that reunion and b) we began our odyssey to America, which has had a really happy ending. I mean I’m talking to you today because they were people who were so forward-looking. Unlike many people from that part of the world who are really imprisoned by their history, my parents were not.

TM: You talk about your parents’ affairs. It’s rare to read descriptions of someone’s parents’ paramours without that much bitterness. I’m somewhat amazed reading your book that you seem to actually like their lovers.

KM: First of all, I started working on this book, as I said, after they passed away full of outrage and judgment. “How could our babysitter betray us?” “How could this one do that?” “How could even our dentist be an informer?” And, you know what, by the end of reading thousands of pages of surveillance records and more and more I asked myself how would I have behaved under similar terrifying circumstances.

My parents whispered to each other late at night, “What will become of my little girls?” They were expecting that midnight knock on the door, that terrifying knock on the door, that eventually came. So I became much more judgment-free, much less full of outrage, much more admiring of people who could survive with their humanity intact. And I tell you something: I’m not a kid myself. I’m at a stage in my life where I am much more understanding of human frailties. Because I’m so full of human frailties. And I was quite pleased to read that both my father and mother had some happy memories, thanks to the affairs, to take with them to their cells. Their marriage had hit a low point and both my parents were astonishingly attractive people and there were many temptations for them and they succumbed. Not the first people in the world to have succumbed to such temptations. But in their case, they had more excuses to want to escape their reality. They were living in a giant prison even before they were in prison: their every step followed, their every conversation recorded. They were living in a terror state.

There was nothing small or narrow-minded about my parents and all of that I am the beneficiary of. And, for sure, I have made my life choices and my career choices — first to become a reporter, then to become an author — based on their example. And certainly the work I do for Human Rights Watch and for the Committee to Protect Journalists are my great passions. I owe them those values. No, I’m not the child of a couple of monks.

TM: You draw a portrait of the American diplomatic circle in Hungary at the time. And it sounds a lot like what the U.S. Interest Section in Cuba must be like now.

KM: Yes, I imagine.

TM: There were very limited places where you could go. And yet, the vast majority of the people there tended to behave very sanely. I kept on thinking when you mentioned the betrayer who lived inside the embassy, who turned in your father, that in those circumstances, someone had to crack.

KM: It was a shock to discover that it was actually an American who provided the key evidence that led to my parents’ arrest. And he did crack. He was caught in what John Le Carré would call a honeypot, that is to say a compromising position with a beautiful agent who then photographed the affair. The man had a wife and a couple of kids and so he was blackmailed. But I did a lot of research on diplomats of the day, of the cold war, and they all said you were trained in those days to immediately go to the chief of mission, the ambassador, and say, “I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve been caught. In a thoughtless moment, I succumbed to human weakness.” And you were guaranteed passage out of the country.

But this man, who is no longer with us, chose another route. He didn’t tell the ambassador. He continued his post and he continued gathering evidence against my parents to keep his shame secret. In other words, he paid off the blackmailers. But you know, there’s always going to be weak people, and in times, such as this period, the cold war, people really were tested, as they were during the Holocaust. It’s all very well and good for us living in relatively — relatively I underscore — peaceful and relatively prosperous times. It’s all very well for us to have iron judgments of people but until you’re really tested– as my parents were — it’s really arrogant, I think, to make such harsh judgments.

This is not to say that I’m not judgmental of this particular individual. He betrayed my parents to save his own career. He didn’t succeed in the end. He was booted out of the Army and never drew a pension. But the Army is very protective of its own so there was never any publicity about his treachery.

coverTM: There’s a book that I would not be surprised to find out that you’ve read. It was a history of the 1956 revolution and it came out about three years ago, called Twelve Days by Victor Sebestyen.

KM: Yes, I read it. It’s very good.

TM: In it, Sebestyen talks about how it continues to haunt him that teenagers were given guns and Molotov cocktails during the 1956 revolution. And it’s the one fact about the revolution that he can’t really abide to this day. Those teenagers with Molotov cocktails make an appearance in your book without too much judgment. And I’m curious to know what your actual feelings are about that.

KM: I think the difference between Mr. Sebestyen’s account and mine is a very key fact: I was there. I lived through those days and the days and years that preceded it. I lost my parents for — in my father’s case — two years to this revolting regime. He is writing from a detached, more academic position, where it’s much easier to expect high standards of conduct and good planning and rational behavior.

The revolution was an absolutely spontaneous eruption of emotion. In my neighborhood, I saw these teenagers. They were our new heroes. These teenagers were not drummed into service the way child soldiers are in so many places around the world today. They lined up to play a role in what they saw as a historic opportunity, a historic moment, in their country’s long oppressed history, to fight the hated Soviet occupier. There were no plans to recruit teenagers. And, by the way, they were not little kids. They were, I think in most instances, 16, 17, 18, 19 years old. And Time magazine made the Hungarian Freedom Fighter the Man of the Year that year. So I think, of course there’s room and need for the historian’s judgment of these kinds of events. But it’s equally important to have the human story. And mine is the human story, the human cost of the cold war, with all its messiness, imperfections and “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if they had had a trained army ready to go?” and “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the West had dispatched just a little bit of help at this the first uprising against the Soviet empire?”

But none of that happened. These kids, you couldn’t stop these kids. They were so full of hate. They had been oppressed their entire lives. From nursery school on, we were trained to love those distant gods in the Kremlin: Stalin, Lenin, later Khrushchev. And nobody thought that those were our heroes, our leaders. We had to learn Russian. We had to learn marching songs. In my case, I had to watch the Hungarian Secret Police drag my parents away. So kids grow up really fast in that kind of a system. At age six I already knew what I could say outside our apartment, and what I couldn’t. Sometimes I made mistakes. (laughs) As Enemies of the People relates sometimes it could be confusing. All I am saying is let’s not let the historian’s accounts and judgments be the only ones that we pay attention to.

TM: You mention a meeting with Cardinal Mindszenty, who was one of the most famous cold war dissidents. And you portray him as an incredibly stolid, old-school stark “Catholic to the Catholic degree” figure. It’s strange to meet this figure who doesn’t even smile in his freedom-fighting mode. How does that memory of him color your view of him as an adult?

KM: That was how he was. He was a dark, stubborn, not a charismatic figure. He was not a martyr of the church. He confessed to being a CIA agent when he had the option of not confessing to false charges. By the way, my parents also confessed to being CIA agents, because of what we today call enhanced interrogation. They were submitted to Abu Ghraib-style interrogation. And they reached their breaking point. In my mother’s case they broke her by withholding information about her children.
Which is I think about as cruel a technique as anyone could devise.

But to return to Mindszenty. My description of him is through a child’s eyes. And that’s how he was. He hardly ever smiled. He was not a beloved figure. But he suffered in prison and then he became a huge encumbrance to the West in the Cold War because he did not leave the American embassy. He actually occupied the American ambassador’s office for I believe 15 years until he was spirited out. But he was not a warm or loving man of the cloth. He was stern. There was an almost peasant-like stubbornness about him.

TM: Now that you’re an adult –

KM: Mostly.

TM: – you see similar events from another side. Not just because you are an American, but because you are married to Richard Holbrooke. You are moving in similar circles to those your father and mother were witnessing from the outside. Did that color you at all when you were writing this book?

KM: If you asked Richard Holbrooke he would say that his view of the world was colored by my writing this book. Because he was a source of great support for me. This was sometimes a very painful process when I came across a revelation of just how brutal my parents’ treatment at the hand of the communists was. Sometimes I felt like quitting because I felt like I had become one of the army of watchers who were watching my parents. And Richard would say, “No this is important. This is important beyond your family. This is important for history. You got to keep at it.” Richard and I sustain each other in our various careers with support and advice and criticism. He’s my first reader. I’m his first reader. It’s an invaluable partnership for both in what we do. I was with him in Dayton when he was negotiating the peace in the Balkans. When he was ambassador to the United Nations, we traveled all over.

On one trip, I’ll give you an example, we went to 11 African countries and both of us were transformed by that. That’s when he became totally focused on the problem of AIDS and made it an item for the Security Council. The first time that health was put on that agenda. And so on. So it’s a full partnership. And he did not have much familiarity with Central Europe before he met me. And he certainly does now. So I would reverse the influence. In this process he would tell you that it was a revelation for him. But it’s a fact that I’ve had a very fortunate exposure, a very privileged exposure to policy-making at the highest levels. It’s been a real interesting ride, I would say.

recently obtained a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle. His dissertation focuses on the animation industry of the former Yugoslavia. He writes frequently on comics and animation. He can be reached via email at