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Journalist Kati Marton Examines Human Cost of War

December 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner chats with author Kati Marton about her book "Enemies of the People: My Family's Journey to America," which looks at the human cost of the Cold War.
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MARGARET WARNER: Not long after World War II, Endre and Ilona Marton were leading glamorous lives as journalists in Budapest, working for the Associated Press and other Western news outlets.

But, in the 1950s, as the Soviet-backed communists tightened their control, the Martons became the objects of surveillance. They were tried as spies and imprisoned. Freed in 1956, they were allowed to emigrate to the United States a year later.

Now their daughter, author and journalist Kati Marton, has written their story, much of it based on Hungarian secret police archives.

We talked recently with Marton about her new book, “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.”

MARGARET WARNER: Kati Marton, thanks for doing this.

You paint a very vivid word picture in this book of your parents. There were correspondents for two American news organizations, but there was a lot more about them that made them targets of the secret police.

KATI MARTON: They were almost recklessly pro-Western in everything they did, in their appearance. They wore English clothes. They drove a white Studebaker convertible at a time when there were only 2,000 privately-owned cars in the country.

They were a major thorn in the side of the regime. And there was something almost, you know, “See if we can’t do this and get away with this” about them, which — which is still hard for me to understand, why — why they — at a time when most Hungarians would cross to the opposite side of the street to avoid walking past an American, my parents made weekly trips to the American Embassy, and walked in the front door, as if — they lived in an “as if” world, as if it was perfectly acceptable for two American journalists, who were actually Hungarian citizens, to cover all the bad news, to call it as they saw it, and to look and act as if they were Americans, which they were not.

MARGARET WARNER: And your father’s reporting was very honest and straightforward about the repression that was going on.

KATI MARTON: Yes.

They covered every major show trial, until their own, which, obviously, they couldn’t cover. They covered every bad piece of news from behind the Iron Curtain. They really were the last remaining source for Americans of news from behind that other world, which was now captive to Moscow.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you begin the book, it’s the night before you’re going to read these secret police files. And you said you were fearful, really, of what you would discover. And, in fact, you did discover some very disturbing things, particularly about all the people who colluded with the secret police.

KATI MARTON: Well, sitting in that archive with the head archivist and watching clerks in white coats wheeling in supermarket carts full of the Marton family files, I — I was pretty panicked.

And the head archivist turned at me and said, “Yes, yours is one of our biggest files.” Terrifying.

The things that the files contained were shocking at times, everyone in our inner circle, from our baby-sitter, perhaps the most treacherous of all.

MARGARET WARNER: Whom you had never liked?

KATI MARTON: I never liked, so this was kind of belated vindication. She always liked my sister better.

But it turns out that I was right. Everybody was wrong, because she was a full-time agent reporting on our every move, using me — I was 6 years old at the time — and my older sister as her chief sources.

And — but everyone, all our cleaning ladies, our dentist, the guy at the grocery store, everybody was informing on my parents.

MARGARET WARNER: And there was someone in the American Embassy. That was shocking.

KATI MARTON: That — I think, for my parents, this must have been the most painful thing, that, when they were finally arrested, the evidence was provided by someone in the embassy, someone who himself was being blackmailed by the communist secret police.

MARGARET WARNER: You also learned some things in the course of this, things that they didn’t want you to know about your family background, about their own emotional and personal lives.

KATI MARTON: There were whole regions of my history, Margaret, that were walled off by my parents, who, when they reached safety in America, just decided they were done with Europe. They never talked about the fact that my father was active in the anti-Nazi underground.

They never talked about the fact that my grandparents perished in Auschwitz. I had no idea that we were of Jewish background. I was raised as a Roman Catholic. I never knew, for example, that they tried throughout my childhood, through desperate means, to get out of Hungary, and failed every time.

They were desperate people, it turns out. But I was oblivious, as a little kid, to their desperation, and, of course, oblivious to the fact that, actually, their marriage was — was also very much on the brink.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in prison, though, they — they did finally break your father, in a certain way.

KATI MARTON: Yes, yes. The — this was hard reading.

My father was interrogated for weeks on end in what I have to describe as Abu Ghraib-style interrogation. He was made to stand up against a wall while obscenities were shouted at him for endless hours, sleep deprivation, no food, no water.

And, ultimately, he — he confessed to being an American agent, which, of course, he was not. But, you know, it’s proof that — that everybody has their breaking point.

But I think, Margaret, that maybe more even painful for me than that, which was horrible to read, was to discover that he tried, not once, but twice, to commit suicide in prison, and tried methodically by collecting the sleeping pills which — which were…

MARGARET WARNER: In the lining of his coat.

KATI MARTON: Yes.

And — and, here, it was his — his cell mate, who was also informing on my father, who actually saved my father’s life. Three of these pills fell out of the lining of his pocket. And the — the agent, cell mate, immediately reported that.

Had he carried that out, he would have never seen me or my sister grow up to be who we have become. He would have missed out on our whole life after that. And it’s a heartbreaking prospect.

MARGARET WARNER: Then, when they got to the U.S., and your father actually became a diplomatic correspondent, worked at the — covered the State Department for the Associated Press, the surveillance resumed, you learned.

KATI MARTON: Yes.

This was yet another…

MARGARET WARNER: Really bizarre.

KATI MARTON: Another shock that the files held was that, once my father made a byline for himself here in the United States, the Hungarians decided, aha, this guy could be useful to us. So, the watchers resumed their watching, and, again, total surveillance.

While I, as a little American girl living in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, was pitched headlong into my Americanization, we were surrounded by agents of communist Hungary, who were again taking notes on my parents’ every move, trying to figure out who would be a better agent, my mother or my father, how to blackmail them. Again, the same — the watchers took up their watching.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, what — to what degree do you think this is, while a very particular story about you and your family, also a quite universal story about what life was like for Central Europeans after World War II, liberated from the Nazis, but fell on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain?

KATI MARTON: You know, as we — as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the end of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think it’s really important that we hear not only from the historian’s perspective on what the Cold War was all about, but from the human perspective, what it entailed for thousands, millions of people to live under that system of total fear, total terror, and how it can make the whole population virtually complicitous in its dirty business.

I think it’s really important for us in this country to understand the human cost of — of the Cold War, before all the witnesses to it disappear.

And that’s why I moved as fast as I did to try to find as many of the people who played either a negative or a positive role in my own family’s saga, because, Margaret, this isn’t just about my family. This is — this is how people were forced to live. And it’s important for us to remember that.

MARGARET WARNER: Kati Marton, thank you.

KATI MARTON: Thank you, Margaret.