11/10/2014 03:42 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

On Memory, Loss, and the Holocaust

This post is adapted from a speech given to the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum's 2014 Annual Gala Dinner on November 2, 2014 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

I am overwhelmed by the honor you pay me this evening -- all the more since in honoring me you are also honoring my parents. They, of course are no longer alive, but everything I am -- in so far as I have made a modest mark -- I owe this brave, complicated and remarkable couple -- true survivors of the terrible 20th century.

We are in a solemn place -- a place of remembrance -- so it's fitting that I spend a few minutes remembering the journey of a child of Cold War Budapest that led to this beautiful hall, to this evening's genuinely humbling tribute from you.

The Holocaust brought me here -- the Holocaust is the marking event of my life and my work.

My own story may sound dramatic now -- but it was not really exceptional during that time -- and that place. I was raised as a Roman Catholic in Soviet Occupied Hungary. When I was six, both of my parents were arrested, tried and convicted as American spies. Their crime was being good reporters. Whatever the Free World -- as it was then called -- knew about the brutal Soviet regime in Hungary came from my parents' reporting, my father for the AP, my mother for UPI. So they had to be silenced.

I did not see my father for almost two years or my mother for one very long year. Nor did my sister and I, left in the care of strangers, have any idea where they were or how long our separation would last.

Many years later, when I was working on my first book, Wallenberg, I learned that, in fact, I was not merely a child of the Cold War. I was also a child of the Holocaust. In the midst of an interview with a woman rescued by Raoul Wallenberg, my life changed. "Wallenberg," she casually mentioned, "arrived too late to save your grandparents." I had been told that an Allied bombing raid killed my mother's parents in the last month of World War II. Now I learned that they perished in Auschwitz, along with a half a million other Hungarians, in the Holocaust's briefest and most violent final act.

I dedicated my first book, Wallenberg, to the memory of the grandparents I never knew. But my parents asked me not to so publicly acknowledge our heritage. And this request from my parents -- which I honored -- was my first window into the life-long trauma of survivors -- and the terrible emotional cost of the silence my parents maintained throughout their lives. As I have never seen a single picture of my grandparents, I once asked my mother if I resembled my grandmother. My mother's eyes filled and she left the room. I knew better than to ask again.
So, writing Wallenberg changed my life; it led me to my history and identity. It also led me to delve deeper into the overwhelming moral issue of our day: the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust. There is still no bigger subject. The Nobel Prize for literature was just awarded to the French author Patrick Modinano, all of whose books deal with the Holocaust's continuing impact on France.

I have been very fortunate in the adventuresome life I've lived so far, which has taken me to many places and, at times, a front row seat to history. Yet in my books I, too, keep returning to that inescapable subject -- keep returning to the country and the city of my birth and to its tragic destiny. Each time I finish a book, I think I am done with Hungary, done with the subject of memory, and loss, and the Holocaust. But we will never be done with it. Nor should we be.
With my parents' death nine years ago, the taboo on the past was lifted. I rededicated my biography of Raoul Wallenberg to the memory of my grandparents for whom Wallenberg arrived too late. And then delved deeper.

In The Great Escape I explored the triumphant journey of nine Budapest Jews who changed the world -- who collectively helped America beat Hitler to the atom bomb and invented such modern art forms as photojournalism and a great deal of Hollywood. Despite their stratospheric success, these nine men remained forever exiles, never quite belonging, marked by the loss of their own city, their identity; marked for death by their own people. That was my parents' story, and to a certain extent my own.

In Enemies of the People I paid my brave parents their historic due. Using secret police files that recorded their every move, I captured their courage under Soviet ruled Hungary and then as prisoners unbroken by a regime so inhuman that it withheld from them any information about what happened to their small children. In reading these files, I discovered just how very human my parents were -- each conducting a love affair while the state dogged their every step, loving life and, though imperfectly, each other. I am proud to say that as a result of that book, now being made into a feature film, Endre and Ilona Marton have officially entered Cold War history.

We are each born into a specific place and time and I, for one, feel we must engage in the big issues of our day. As much as I am sometimes tempted to retreat to my research and the solitary agony of facing the blank screen each morning, I try to stay connected to the world beyond my office in New York's 42nd St. Public Library. But, in a way, the sort of writing I do -- capturing history while the actors are still alive -- is my way of engaging in the present. There is no substitute for recording the past as it was experienced. This is our only weapon against those who would deny history. When I wrote my biography of Wallenberg for example, eye witnesses were still alive to bring the young Swede to life for me. Thirty years later, I could not write the same book today. I know my parents sometimes resented my relentless interrogations of their past, the nightmare of the German Occupation with Hungary's homegrown Nazis, Arrow Cross, prowling the streets of Budapest looking for Jews to march to the frozen Danube for execution, followed by their subsequent agony as Communist prisoners. But, once this generation leaves us, we will no longer have those stories -- recollected painfully, with tears and sometimes anger -- which we need to breathe terrible life into historic facts. Their memories are our chief weapon against repeating their nightmare.

I have just returned from a mission to Hungary on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an American NGO that monitors press freedom worldwide. Press freedom -- along with many other freedoms -- is at risk again in Hungary, as elsewhere in Europe. Nationalism, populism and intolerance are on the rise again -- and with them, inevitably, anti-Semitism. A right-wing populist is now gathering all power in his hands and Hungarians seem to be going along with him. A similarly dangerous trend is sweeping a number of other European countries, France included. This is partly due to the fact that these countries have not done the hard work of assimilating their own terrible histories. Unlike Germany, Hungary has not really confronted its role in the extermination of a half a million of its own citizens.

It isn't only families -- mine included -- that suffer when the past is kept shrouded. Nations, which fall for the seductive message of, "we are all just victims here," are destined to repeat the past. My countryman, the great writer Arthur Koestler, who penned Darkness at Noon, wrote that the human species is a "deeply flawed biological product." None of us is immune to a terrible capacity for evil. I experienced that alongside my husband, Richard Holbrooke, when he negotiated to end the Bosnian war -- Europe's bloodiest since World War II. There, in the heart of Europe, the most extreme recent case of religious persecution occurred in the late 20th century. In the Bosnia town of Srebrenica, Christians massacred Muslims, while Europe stood by and watched.

Not all of us is in a position to be able to end wars, as Richard did. But I think that active engagement in public life is the most meaningful way to honor those we have lost, in my case my grandparents, my parents and my husband -- who did so much to fight the bullies and the demagogues on the world stage -- all the while putting up with a feisty Hungarian wife for 17 years.

I accept this honor on his, as well as my parents' behalf tonight.

Thank you.