15 DEC 2010: This interview with acclaimed journalist and author Kati Marton took place prior to the sudden death of her husband Richard Holbrooke, US diplomat and former US Ambassador to the United Nations on Monday December 13. Travel Industry Today expresses its deepest condolences to Ms. Marton.


In the beginning


Picture a little girl playing with her friend sheltered inside the safety of her home. The doorbell rings. Her mother is in the next room, occupied. The daughter walks to the front door.

Only when these strangers dressed in worker’s overalls announce that they have arrived at her mother’s request to fix the meter inside the apartment does the daughter innocently agree to open the door.

The six-year-old cranks the doorknob. In they walk, as the daughter returns to her girlfriend with play on her mind for the next few hours.

What happens next has remained with Kati Marton as only one of the haunting episodes her family faced over fifty years ago.

The acclaimed journalist and best-selling author vividly recalled the day her mother was abducted and arrested by Hungary’s notorious secret police, the AVO, as though it were yesterday. The former chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists was in Toronto recently to promote her latest book, Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.

Based on a true story Enemies of the People is a tour de force and uses never before seen archival government documents from Hungary. It reads like a Le Carré novel, filled with spies, espionage, betrayal and unforeseen romance along the way.

The book is the personal account of the Marton family. Ilona and Endre Marton were prominent journalists who were the last independent reporters behind the Iron Curtain, working for western newspapers the AP and UPI during Hungary’s Stalinist years in the mid-fifties. The Martons were arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Hungarian secret police. The children, Kati and her older sister, were placed in a foster home.

Shortly before the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Martons were released and the family was reunited.

Never really knowing about her parents’ fate during that traumatic period, because as Kati Marton says “They wanted to leave the past behind them when they arrived in America,” the author of several other books among them, Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History, Wallenberg, The Polk Conspiracy, A Death in Jerusalem, and The Great Escape: Nine Jews who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, decided to open up this past only after the passing of her parents recently.

She shared some of the discoveries and spoke candidly about the process that took her to uncover dark places she had never imagined her reporting would take her.

IK: Why did you want to write this book?

KM: In search of roots, retracing from where we came from. A child needs to know who their parents were. Who were there grandparents, how did we end up here?

Five years ago both my parents passed away and the taboo on the past was, in a sense, lifted. The Hungarian Foreign Minister of the day had presented my father with the highest civilian award which I am happy to say they have since given me as well.

With that award came a file, a single dossier which they had taken from the secret police archives as a demonstration to my father that this was a different Hungary, that they are an open country.

My father had never opened that file. It sat on his desk until his death. That night I opened it and started reading and weeping. I had no idea what they went through in prison. I was struck by how much I didn’t know by just this one file.

IK: What advice did you get from your friends and colleagues?

KM: I was told by my friends that: ‘You are opening up a Pandora’s box. Don’t go there. You don’t know what you’re going to find when your parents are no longer around to be able to answer questions if you find some compromising material.’ I did fear that.

IK: What do you think you would you have done had you found that kind of material?

KM: I’m not sure I would have finished the project if I would have discovered that they like so many others were being traitors on people.

But everything changed when I found a piece of paper which is actually reprinted in the book whereby the interrogating major said that Endre Marton under weeks of the most brutal interrogation has not compromised a single Hungarian.

That was my Eureka moment. From that moment on I moved like a fast moving train because I knew my worst fear had not been compromised. I hugely admired my father.

IK: How is this book different from your others?

KM: This is my seventh book. The first one I have written about my family and the first one in first person. It’s important to note that this is the first book based on the Hungarian government archives as well.

I went back to Budapest as fast as I could and went to the archives and filled out all the paperwork and waited to be summoned. When I got a call from the head archivist she said we located the files but you better bring several empty suitcases.

She said that in a voice like “Congratulations you had won the lottery;” but I was terrified.

What could all these Marton family files hold? Indeed when I sat with her, they wheeled in all these files. It was 20 years of surveillance. My parents were the last independent reporters behind the Iron Curtain. They basically kept the Free World apprised of every awful development of Stalinizing this forgotten corner of Europe.

IK: What were some of the truths you discovered?

KM: The awful truth was nearly everyone was informing against my parents. The most treacherous case was our French babysitter. My mother was a great Francophile. Even in the darkest communist days she wanted her daughters to learn French.

We had this woman living with us. She was always there. Turns out she was a professional agent using my sister and me as her sources. However, I do owe her my very good French.

IK: When people read your book what is the lesson you would like them to take away?

KM: First of all it’s a story of the power of family love which survives every trauma, every historical nightmare. Here we are talking about the two most hellish nightmares in the twentieth century: first the Holocaust and fascism, then the communism.

My parents had the will and energy to start life anew in the New World. My parents were extremely forward thinking people and were not destroyed by these twin nightmares.

I think it is really important for people to know not just from the perspective of the big actors like the Eisenhower’s and Khrushchev’s but from the little people who lived through the Cold War.

There were millions of others like us and I think it’s really important for people to assimilate those lessons to learn about the daily life in those countries. History is too important to be left to historians. You need a living eye witness testimony to really make people feel what a totalitarian system feels like and how a terror state functions. It functions by using fear.

IK: What kind of response has your book received?

KM: Now it’s taken off in a way I had not expected. Last week it was published in France. It’s coming out in Germany. In Hungary it’s a big best seller. It’s soon to be a movie. As painful as the process often was, of all my books, this has had the most attention. It seems to resonate most with readers Hungarians and non Hungarians alike. It’s a family journey.

That’s what your country and my country is about; getting a second chance.

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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