Books: Kati Marton's Family Secrets

Even as a kindergartner in 1954, Kati Marton understood that her parents were different from most Hungarians. Endre and Ilona Marton drove a Studebaker convertible and played bridge with the American ambassador. Marton knew better than to mention her parents' friends when she was at school, where Westerners were called "imperialists" and students learned rhymes about Eisenhower's fat head. But much was kept secret from Marton. While the 5-year-old was celebrating a joyful Christmas, her parents were trying to hide their fear. Kati did not know that the brutal dictator Mátyás Rákosi had flagrantly—and ominously—snubbed her parents a few nights before at a reception commemorating Hungary's "liberation" by the Soviets. She also did not know that the secret police were gathering a case to arrest them in the new year.

"Children cannot fully know their parents," Marton writes at the beginning of her memoir about her family, Enemies of the People. For most of Marton's life, she knew even less than most daughters. As the correspondents for the Associated Press (Endre) and United Press (Ilona)—and as the last permanently accredited independent journalists in Hungary—they openly defied a feared regime to honestly portray life behind the Iron Curtain. They knew that their enemies could use their private lives as weapons against them.

When Marton was older her parents would wave away questions about their past. "You cannot ever understand," they would say. While researching a book on Raoul Wallenberg, Marton discovered that her parents were Jewish and that her grandparents had died in concentration camps. "When I called Papa from Budapest with news of my 'discovery,' he was cold," she writes. To him, wondering about the past was "an American luxury." After communism fell, the secret-police archives sent her father a manila envelope. He never opened it.

Marton, though, wanted to know the truth, and after her parents died, she returned to Budapest to read their file. It was one of the archives' largest—thousands of pages of detailed documents. Their file, a record of terror, is ultimately to her a source of love. "How ironic: to owe to one of the most brutal twentieth-century institutions … a priceless window into my parents," she writes. "My parents are no longer the demigods of my youth"; they are "much more human." She now knows that they were not al-ways faithful to each other, and that they made desperate compromises. They knew that honestly reporting the show trials of 1949, the repression under Rákosi, the injustices of life behind the Iron Curtain, and more imperiled themselves and their family. It is no wonder they never wanted to look back. But it is also no wonder that their daughter does. To watch her read her parents' file and glimpse old snapshots of herself, all preserved by the state that would have crushed her parents if it could, is to watch her remember, and maybe even discover, why she is who she is.

Join the Discussion