Journalist and author Kati Marton spoke to OPC members and their guests to a packed room at Club Quarters in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday, February 17. She called her latest book, Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America [Simon & Schuster], a “reporters tale,” which recounts her parents as the last independent journalists behind the iron curtain during the Cold War.
“I have been circling this story for my entire writing life,” Marton said. “This is my seventh book, the first done in first-person, but it is not a memoir. It’s really a story of my parents who died four and five years ago.”
She said the book is not something she would have written while her parents — Endre and Ilona — were alive, as they were always “forward looking.”
“That was the spirit that kept them going,” she said. “They loved America beyond reason.”
Marton said that her parents were also incredibly private people who would have “hated this book. They would not have enjoyed me probing, and at times I felt like one of their ‘watchers.'”
The Marton family was watched, every step recorded, for more than twenty years because they had signed on with America and its ideals and were as a consequence branded “enemies of the people.”
Marton described the process of delving into the files of the Hungarian secret police (AVO) and pieced together the family’s history. Many people tried to warn her, suggesting that she didn’t know what she might find, but she pursued the story because she said it was better to know than not know and that she was just being faithful to her family role of “truth teller.”
To gain access to the archives, Marton had to file a lot of forms and wait to be summoned. When the call came, the clerk advised, “bring an empty suitcase.” After photocopying more than one suitcase of papers on the Marton family, the clerk remarked quite pleased, “yes, it’s one of our biggest files.”
When asked about having such broad access to the archive, Marton responded that “the Hungarian government wants to send the message that ‘we’re a different country now, it’s all yours.'”
One surprise in her research was that she thought the family’s legacy of surveillance would end once they emigrated to the United States in 1956. But the Hungarians had not yet given up on her parents. They dispatched a team to recruit him from their new home in Bethesda, Maryland.
“It was a combination of [Hungarian government’s] paranoia and ignorance,” Marton said. The watchers waiting, thinking that everyone has something to hide and eventually that something to hide could be discovered and used against them as blackmail.
The surveillance by the Hungarians lasted another 10 years while they were in the United States, and Marton suspects that her parents were likely aware that they weren’t one hundred percent free, however, their family never really talked about it. The biggest surprised came to Marton after she filed a freedom of information act with the U.S. government and discovered that the U.S. government had also followed the Martons.
“I’m glad my parents didn’t know about the FBI and Hoover,” she said. “They were such great patriots and would have been offended to know the FBI was on their tail.”
Marton said that from her recollections of the Telex machine in the living room and her father as a reporter for the Associated Press — and who also filed stories under his wife’s name for United Press — it never occurred to her to be anything other than a journalist. She continues to write and is on the Board of CPJ to continue the fight for press freedom globally.