Why History is the Best Prescription for Fearful Times
by Marilyn Cooper
Kati Marton’s early life reads like the plot of a John le Carré spy novel. Marton was born in Budapest in the early years of the Cold War to journalists who, at the time, were among the most famous anti-communist dissidents in the world. During her childhood, Endre and Ilona Marton were jailed and tortured for expressing pro-American sympathies and for openly criticizing the country’s Stalinist dictator, Mátyás Rákosi. After the failure of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Marton family escaped from behind the Iron Curtain and settled in Bethesda, Maryland.
Following in her parents’ footsteps, Marton has had a distinguished career in journalism as a foreign correspondent at NPR and ABC News. She returned to Budapest in the early 1990s to research her first book, Wallenberg: Missing Hero. While there, Marton made the surprising discovery that her maternal grandparents had perished in Auschwitz. To survive, her parents had converted to Roman Catholicism, and they did not disclose their Jewish background to their daughter. Marton later documented her parents’ life in totalitarian Hungary in her 2009 book, Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.
Not surprisingly, communist-era Eastern Europe has been the backdrop for most of Marton’s nine books of popular history, including her 2006 book, The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. Her latest book, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, retells the strange story of Noel Field, a once-earnest, American Quaker turned devout communist who spied for the Soviet Union during the 1930s while employed at the U.S. State Department. Marton spoke with Moment about the discovery of her family’s Jewish roots, the late Moment cofounder Elie Wiesel and her commitment to human rights and free speech.
You’re known as a writer and a journalist, but you’ve also spent a lot of time advocating for human rights around the world. How did you evolve from writing to activism?
I became involved with human rights issues because I did not believe that a writing life was a sufficiently engaged life. At a certain point, after I had done almost everything I could do as a journalist and in a writing career—from NPR to network and local TV—I decided that it was time to give back. During my 17-year marriage to [the late diplomat] Richard Holbrooke, we were very engaged in world events. I was not a spectator, as journalists often are, but an active participant and advocate. My friendship with Elie Wiesel also encouraged that.
You’ve served as chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists. What led to your involvement with this group?
As the daughter of journalists who were imprisoned in communist Hungary for six years, I felt drawn to protecting the rights of my colleagues living in less privileged countries with repressive governments, where, like my parents, they could be jailed for what they wrote. I remain very involved in assisting journalists living under oppressive regimes. I’ve undertaken missions to Pakistan, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere advocating on behalf of journalists. Sometimes I even visit them in their prison cells.
I have steeled myself for these experiences because it is not about me; it is about them. I have even been in the cell where my own father was kept for three years, because when I was writing Enemies of the People I wanted to have that experience.
Does the incoming U.S. administration pose any special concerns to you as a journalist and free-speech advocate?
Hell yes! Donald Trump does not respect journalists or their work, and he does not respect the role a free media plays in democracy. He rules by tweets, and he likes to embarrass and shame and defame his enemies, including journalists. He is the prickliest public person in memory, a very dangerous quality. For the first time ever, we at the Committee to Protect Journalists are focused not just on our colleagues in places like Syria and Russia but also on our own colleagues here in the United States. I will watch vigilantly for any and all infringements of my colleagues’ constitutional rights.
How will the new administration affect the work of organizations you’ve been active in, such as the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch?
It’s unpredictable because much of this is unprecedented in the United States. I believe that Donald Trump’s election is a signal to those of us who are interested in core American values such as tolerance, openness and respecting other people that we need to be more engaged than ever before. We must watch for any rolling back of our constitutionally enshrined rights and freedoms. My parents were great American patriots—they came here as their last haven. I am thankful they were spared this spectacle of a man with so little experience, knowledge or curiosity about the rest of the world becoming president of the United States. It would have horrified them. Most of all, we cannot retreat from the public arena.
Why do you write about history?
History is too important to be left to historians. I try to bring history to readers in an interesting way. With my most recent book, True Believer, I wrote about Stalinism and the dangers of fanatical beliefs in totalitarian governments. I want to keep history at the forefront of our consciousness. Mr. Trump needs to study history. History, if you are not aware of it, as he is not, will bite you hard. For Donald Trump, everything is happening for the first time.
As a victim of a totalitarian regime—I opened the door to my parents’ jailers when I was six—I know how quickly things can change and how quickly a demagogue can turn neighbors against neighbors. It doesn’t take long for that to happen. Human beings are extremely flawed characters. Elie Wiesel was well aware of that.
As a victim of a totalitarian regime—I opened the door to my parents’ jailers when I was six—I know how quickly things can change and how quickly a demagogue can turn neighbors against neighbors.
How did you first become friends with him?
Elie and I met in the Grand Synagogue in Stockholm in 1981. It was a critical moment for me. I had just come from Budapest, where I had discovered my own Jewish roots. I had been raised as a Roman Catholic in Hungary, and while researching my first book, a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, I discovered that my grandparents were Jewish and had perished in Auschwitz—something I had never been told. I met Elie by chance and told him this story. I was shocked that my parents, who I absolutely revered, had withheld something so important. We all carry different ideas of Elie in our heads, but my Elie was not surprised by anything having to do with human beings. He was beyond surprise. I told him the story about my parents. They were the only journalists writing about the awful atrocities that were unfolding in Soviet-occupied Hungary. Elie just gave the wonderful shrug he so often gave when told about strange human behavior. He said, “Kati, they survived. Because they survived, you are here. Don’t be so hard on them.”
What was your reaction to your parents’ decision to not tell you about your Jewish heritage?
I felt I had lost something in not having the Jewish faith and tradition, but I think much of the work I do beyond my writing is my way of fulfilling important aspects of that heritage and of being a good human being. Elie was very helpful reconciling me to my parents’ choices, as was my husband. Richard Holbrooke, the world’s greatest negotiator, negotiated a truce between me and my parents.
What’s next for you?
I plan to continue to be a writer, but whatever time I don’t spend writing, I will speak out. I will be a voice for the values I cherish, that my parents cherished and that Elie cherished.