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Book Excerpt: Escape From Budapest

November 26, 2001, 9:20 PM UTC
Bill Gates (R), chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, poses for photographers with And..
Bill Gates (R), chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, poses for photographers with Andy Grove, chairman of Intel Corporation, at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California July 8, 2001. Gates and Grove are standing with two of the oldest computers on each end and three of the newest laptop computers in the center. The event was held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the personal computer. - RTXKOH8
© Jeff Christensen / Reuters

In 1952, when he was a student at the Madach gymnasium in Budapest, Hungary, Andris Grof had a favorite teacher, one Mr. Volenski, whose subject was physics. A small man with reddish hair, Mr. Volenski was a character who liked to use stories about his dog, Muki (an affectionate slang word meaning “little guy”), in his lessons. “I threw this object to my dog, Muki,” he would say. “Would it be easier for him to catch it this way or that way?”

Mr. Volenski was older than most of the other teachers at the school, and though he had an excellent memory for things that had happened 20 years before, he might forget a student’s name even if he had seen him just a few hours earlier. Grof always sat in the front row because a childhood bout of scarlet fever had left him hard of hearing, but even so he wasn’t sure that Mr. Volenski knew who he was. So he was surprised when his parents returned from a teacher conference one day and told him with great pride that Mr. Volenski had said to the assembled parents, “Life is like a big lake. All the boys get in the water at one end and start swimming. Not all of them will swim across. But one of them, I’m sure, will. That one is Grof.”

Faithful Fortune readers will be familiar with the outlines of Andy Grove’s remarkable career. (Unfaithful ones probably will be too: He was TIME’s Man of the Year in 1997.) The master manager of Silicon Valley during its gold-rush years, Grove served as Intel’s CEO between 1987 and 1997, giving shareholders an average annual return of 44%. He joined co-founders Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore during the company’s startup in 1968, and by delivering on the promise of Moore’s famous 1975 prediction—that the power of computer chips would double every 18 months—Grove led Intel to its position as the world’s preeminent microprocessor maker. By the time he stepped aside as CEO, Intel had sales of $20.8 billion, and its microprocessors powered more than 80% of the world’s personal computers. Along the way Grove wrote four books, taught at Stanford, and cemented his position as one of the indispensable leaders of the computer revolution.

What readers may not know is that before all that—even before his name was Andy Grove—he had lived through a Hungarian fascist dictatorship, the German military occupation, the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a succession of repressive communist regimes, and the Hungarian revolution. Those experiences of course shaped his childhood and his outlook on life, and perhaps give an added dimension to the title of his bestselling 1996 business book, Only the Paranoid Survive.

Now Grove has written a new book, Swimming Across, to tell the story of those early years.

Born in Budapest in 1936, Andris Grof was the only child of a dairy manager, George Grof, and his wife, Maria. When war came, George Grof was conscripted into a labor battalion of the Hungarian army and disappeared for three years; Maria sewed yellow Stars of David onto Andris’ clothing. Eventually mother and son went into hiding, using forged papers that identified them as gentiles. They lived in a suburban cellar with several other families, pretending to be refugees from the countryside named Malesevics, until Russian troops drove out the Nazis.

The family was reunited in Budapest after the war, and for a time Andris lived a relatively normal boyhood, though the new communist regime closed his parochial school and nationalized his father’s business. Andris fell in love with literature and opera, acquired an air gun, took dancing lessons, discovered girls, and excelled in school (especially at chemistry). At age 19, though officially considered a “class alien,” he managed to get into the University of Budapest through a family connection.

Then, in October 1956, as Andris was starting his second year at the university, Hungarians rose up against their communist government in a rebellion that lasted 13 days. Soviet armed forces quashed it violently, and when they were done, troops began rounding up and “interning” civilians. Budapest was no longer a safe place to be a class alien.

In the excerpt that follows, Andy Grove recounts the first steps of his journey from Budapest to Silicon Valley and to a place in business history. The journey began in a city gripped by terror.

One afternoon in early December, I was reading near a window in our apartment on Kiraly Street when my aunt Manci stopped by. She had been out shopping and had her usual nylon string bag hanging from her shoulder with a loaf of bread and something wrapped in brown paper in it. As always she was dressed in a heavy coat with a kerchief tied around her head, but she was too agitated to take off her coat. She came right over to me and without any greeting said, “Andris, you must go.”

I stared at her. “You must go,” she repeated, “and you must go immediately.” On her way back from shopping, she had seen several Russian trucks, the kind that were covered with canvas and usually carried troops. The trucks had pulled up at an intersection. Russian soldiers had jumped out, rounded up young people who happened to be in the neighborhood, herded them on the trucks, closed the canvas flap, and left.

This was not altogether new news. Stories of such roundups had been going around Budapest since the Russians returned. But all the stories were thirdhand, hearsay. I had never talked to anyone who had actually witnessed such an event. Given the climate of rumors and exaggerations, one part of me believed the worst, but another part of me wasn’t sure that these events actually took place.

Manci’s visit changed all that. She was an Auschwitz survivor and had seen the worst that could be. She was not a hysterical woman and had absolutely no reason to exaggerate.

The news hit me at a time when I had been going back and forth in my mind about whether to leave the country. Ever since the Russians had returned some three weeks ago, the number of young people who had set off to cross the border had grown by the week. Some clearly made it across, because they sent back word from Austria. Others disappeared. They either were captured and interned or made it across and didn’t report back home. Nobody knew which. Still, as it became more and more commonplace to hear about acquaintances who had gone, the thought of leaving occupied me more and more.

Those thoughts led to endless discussions between my parents and me and between myself and my classmate Jancsi. Of all my friends, he was the one I had stayed in touch with the most during the turmoil of the revolution. Our discussions were all of the “what if” type: What if we could catch a ride on a truck on its way back to Austria? What if we got a travel permit to go to the vicinity of the border? And so on. None of them had a realistic chance of being translated into action. Still, my father obtained the name and address of the Viennese business associate of a friend of his—just in case. The friend wrote a little note, saying, “Do everything possible to help the bearer of this note.” Then he signed it and gave it to my father to safeguard for me, if and when I should need it.

I knew where I would go if I did leave: Of course, it would be America. Or, as the communist regime put it, “imperialist, money-grubbing America.” The more scorn they heaped on it, the more desirable America sounded. America had a mystique of wealth and modern technology; it was a place with lots of cars and plenty of Hershey bars. In addition, there was a more pragmatic consideration. Manci’s sister, Lenke, and her brother-in-law, Lajos, an aunt and uncle I’d never met, lived in New York City. Manci was positive they would take me in.

My parents didn’t have a lot of confidence in Lenke and Lajos. Just after the war was over, we had received a package in the mail from America. It was a big tin filled with flints for cigarette lighters—thousands and thousands of them. In her accompanying letter, Lenke expressed her hopes that my father would come back alive and explained that she was sending the flints as a way to help him get started in business again. My father had laughed contemptuously: “Does Lenke want me to stand on a street corner and sell these?” The box of flints had disappeared someplace, but my parents’ doubts about Lenke remained.

In any case, there were two more immediate problems holding me back from leaving: I didn’t know how to do it, and I was scared.

Manci addressed the second problem in a roundabout way when she told me that I would be in danger if I stayed. If I could be picked up merely for being at the wrong street at the wrong time and taken away to heaven knew where and for who knew how long, I might as well take my chances and try to get out of Hungary.

Manci also proposed a solution to my first problem. Always a collector of acquaintances and connections, she told me about someone she knew who came from Szombathely, a small town about 15 miles from the Austrian border. This woman had a daughter named Angela who was about my age and was also looking to get out. Angela had never actually been to Szombathely, but her family would equip her with the name and address of friends who still lived there so that we would have a jumping-off point. It wasn’t exactly a smooth plan of getting across the border, but it was better than anything I could come up with on my own.

I called Jancsi and told him my aunt’s scheme and asked him if he was ready to strike out with Angela and me. Without hesitation, he said yes.

We went over to the railroad station that afternoon and looked up the schedule of trains leaving for Szombathely the next day. Then we arranged to meet Angela at the station.

My parents had encouraged me to leave as long as the discussions were theoretical. Now that reality hit, they became extremely somber. My father said in a tone of earnest determination, “You should do it. You may never have a better chance.” He gave me the note with the message to his friend’s Viennese business associate, as well as the name and address of Viktor, a friend of his and Manci’s from their Kiskoros days who now lived in Vienna. I folded them up as small as possible and put them in my wallet. My mother agreed with my father, but her tone was shaky. I felt that if I changed my mind, she would have been elated.

That night was very tense. I was busy figuring out what clothes I was going to wear, what I was going to take with me, and how I was going to dispose of what I left behind. I asked my mother to go to the university when it reopened and find out what grade I got in my latest lab project. Despite all the turmoil in my life, that organic chemistry lab was still very important to me, and I wanted to know whether my success in the first-year lab was a fluke or whether I could repeat it. My mother wrote down the information about whom she needed to see and what she was to ask.

We were trying to be thorough and efficient in our preparations, but we were just going through the motions. It was difficult to concentrate on these details when we were struggling with the unstated fact that we might never see each other again.

That night, before I went to bed, I walked quietly around the apartment. I looked over every room. I straightened up my chemistry set. I silently said goodbye.

Early the next morning, I dressed in the warmest outfit I had: a baggy pair of brown corduroy pants that a neighborhood tailor had lined with my mother’s old padded silk bathrobe, and a jacket also lined with the remains of the bathrobe. Underneath, I wore my best winter suit. It would get wrinkled, but in the meantime it would give extra warmth and might come in handy if I needed another pair of pants and a jacket. I packed a change of underwear and some extra socks in my school book bag and put on a short winter coat. My father gave me all the Hungarian currency he could scrounge up on such short notice, and I hid the notes inside my clothes. Then Jancsi showed up and it was time to go downstairs, Jancsi and I to head off to the station and my parents to go to work.

“The more scorn the communist regime heaped on it, the more desirable America sounded.”

In the dark woods, it didn’t look like we were about to cross a border. It looked like we were lost.

We said goodbye at the corner as if it were any normal morning. We didn’t dare make a big production of it; it would not have been a good idea to suggest that I was doing anything out of the ordinary. We parted, then I stopped in my tracks. I had automatically put the key to our apartment in my pocket. Now I fished it out, turned around, and ran after my parents. I handed it to my mother and said awkwardly, “I probably won’t need this any-more.” My mother nodded. She looked as if she wanted to say something, but she didn’t speak. I saw that there were tears in her eyes. I turned and ran back to Jancsi.

We set out for the station. We met up with Angela, bought our tickets, and with great self-consciousness headed for our train. We had concocted all sorts of elaborate alibis as to why we were going to Szombathely, but when we got to the platform, these alibis suddenly appeared ridiculous. Everybody boarding the train looked like us, all dressed in their heaviest winter clothes and all seemingly on a similar mission. It was a train of would-be emigrants, all heading to the country but showing their origin as city folks.

The train ride was quite long—the train never went very fast, and it stopped many times, sometimes for no apparent reason. For a while, people kept to themselves and avoided even looking at each other, but as time went on and nobody interfered with us, everybody dropped their guard a bit. People started making oblique references about getting out, usually talking about friends or acquaintances who had made it and the adventures— or misadventures—that had befallen them. I struck up a conversation with a girl about my age, who said that she had been talking with the conductor, who turned out to be from Szombathely, and that for a small amount of money he had offered to guide her to wherever she wanted to go. The girl’s problem was that she didn’t have anywhere to go. We did. So we promptly formed an alliance. All four of us would have the conductor guide us to the address that Manci’s friend had given Angela.

A little later, I introduced myself to the conductor and asked him how hard it would be to get out of the station. He was not very encouraging. I wondered if he made it sound worse than it was in order to justify his fee.

Eventually, we arrived at Szombathely station. The sun set early in December, and it was already dark. People got off the train and started heading to the exit, a gate at the end of the platform. The conductor came for us and motioned for us to follow him off the other side of the train onto the tracks. He led us to another platform, away from the Budapest passengers. He whispered that there were soldiers at the main entrance examining everyone’s papers, but he would take us out a different way. We held our breath as we followed him through a series of back doors and deserted corridors behind the public part of the station; then suddenly we were out on a dark street. The conductor told us which direction to go in and said that he would follow us. “Don’t worry,” he assured us; he would keep us in sight and tell us when to turn.

It sounded like a strange arrangement, but he was emphatic, so we followed his bidding. For a while, we kept glancing back and he was behind us. Then he was gone. We stopped and huddled together and waited. There was no conductor. Other than an occasional passerby, nobody was on the street. It was now seven-thirty and there would be a curfew at eight o’clock; we couldn’t wait any longer. We stopped someone to ask for directions to our address. He told us where to go—it turned out that it wasn’t very far away—then he quickly headed off. We started walking rapidly too.

Just about eight o’clock, we found the house. We knocked on the door. A middle-aged woman opened it. There was some discussion between her and Angela. The woman checked the street to the left and to the right, then quickly motioned us into the house. We could stay overnight, she said—in fact, we had to because the curfew had already started—then in the morning she would take us to someone who would give us directions to the border. Meanwhile, she fed us dinner, gave us some blankets, and left us to settle down for the night. We each took a corner of the room. No one slept much.

At daybreak, the woman walked us a few blocks to the house of a relative who was a railroad engineer for a spur line. He knew the area very well. He had just come back from a night shift and was already in bed, but the woman woke him up. Once he understood what our situation was, he agreed to help. The woman motioned us into the room. He stayed in bed, yawning, with tousled hair and in his underwear.

The engineer told us he would give us the names of a sequence of villages. There was, however, one condition: We had to commit it to memory. Under no circumstances would we be allowed to write it down. Quite clearly, he wanted to ensure that there would be no incriminating evidence against him if we were captured.

The four of us memorized half a dozen or so very strange-sounding names, muttering them to each other to keep the memory fresh. Then we set out toward the first town in the sequence. We took back roads, because the railroad engineer had told us that the main roads were patrolled by Russian troops. The back roads weren’t paved. Within a short while we were splattered with brown mud up to our knees.

In each town, we asked someone for directions to the next town, then we hurriedly walked on. And on. We may have walked ten or 15 miles, but we were so tense that we were hardly conscious of being tired. By midafternoon we reached the last village on the list. It was already getting dark and we quickly left in the general direction of what we thought was west. Pretty soon we were walking through an area of small woods alternating with plowed fields and pastures. It didn’t look like we were about to cross a border. It looked like we were lost.

In one of the fields, a small man was plowing using a plow pulled by a single ox. We approached him, trudging through even more mud. When he heard us, he looked at us without the slightest surprise. He straightened up and we saw that he was a hunchback. We asked for directions to the border. He looked around in the dusk, peering at the surrounding woods for any possible eavesdroppers. Then he gestured in a particular direction and in a quiet voice, which seemed unnecessary as nobody was around us in the field, said his house was over there and we should go in and wait for him. We thanked him and set off in the direction he indicated. Soon we found the farmhouse.

We knocked. A voice told us to come in. A stunningly beautiful woman was cooking dinner. She was dressed in an elaborate traditional peasant costume that reminded me of folk dancers I’d seen in shows in Budapest. We told her, “The man outside sent us.” She nodded and invited us to sit down for dinner. In short order, the man appeared, cleaned up some, and joined us at the table. They seemed to be husband and wife.

The whole scene—the four of us city people from Budapest, sitting around a table in a small house with mud floors and a tiled roof, eating dinner with a hunchback peasant and being served by a colorfully dressed, beautiful woman—seemed like a fantasy. But we were not very inclined to marvel at the strangeness of the scene. We had only a single abiding interest: to get to the border.

The man told us that he got some of his income by smuggling and knew this area like the back of his hand. He could take us over, he said, but it would cost us. He left us to ponder what we would do. We really didn’t have a choice. Between the four of us, we came up with the amount he wanted and handed it over. My share took half of what my father gave me. The man told us to settle down and wait; we would set off at midnight.

Time moved slowly. The man and his wife went about their business without a word. The four of us sat deep in thought.

As it got closer to midnight, I had to use the toilet. The man took me to the door and pointed out a shack with a door hanging open. Inside was a hole in the ground with a tree trunk fixed horizontally in front of it. You crouched on the tree trunk and did your business into the hole; there were a few pieces of newspaper for toilet paper. I had never seen that kind of latrine before, and it was pitch-dark inside. But I managed. I looked up at the bit of sky barely visible through the doorway and I thought, This is probably the last of me that I’ll leave in Hungary.

Shortly afterward the man said it was time to go. As the train conductor in Szombathely did, he started us off in a particular direction and told us he would stay behind us and seek us out from time to time to guide us to the next post. Given our experience in Szombathely, this was not very reassuring, but again we did not have any choice. He was firm about how he wanted to do this, and we needed him.

We would walk for five or ten minutes in a field or through the woods, then he would materialize from the dark, tell us to head in a slightly different direction, and then disappear again. After another five or ten minutes, he would catch up with us again and direct us to the next step. And so it went. Every time we thought he had abandoned us, he would materialize out of thin air and give us our next instruction. It was cold and dark, so dark that sometimes we had to feel our way among the trees.

I lost track of the time. After a while, we emerged from the woods. I could see some faint lights far across an open field. The man came close to us. “Those lights are Austria,” he whispered. “Head toward them and don’t take your eyes off them. This is as far as I go.” And he was gone.

I didn’t take my eyes off those lights. I trudged toward them as if they were a magnet. The muddy field seemed endless. The lights never seemed to get brighter.

We stumbled across some ditches, then crossed a dirt road. We heard dogs barking at a distance, and suddenly a flare lit up the sky. We threw ourselves to the ground, holding our breath. Then the flare burned out and it was dark again. We picked ourselves up and continued.

After what seemed like miles and miles, the lights finally came close. Had we made it? We sneaked up to the first house that we could see. Dogs immediately started barking in the dark. We again threw ourselves to the ground. A man came out of the house, holding a kerosene lantern over his head, and called out—in Hungarian—”Who is there?”

My heart stopped. I’d heard stories of people who had attempted to cross the border, gotten lost, and meandered right back into Hungary. Had this happened to us, too?

“Who is there?” the man repeated. We hesitantly picked ourselves up from the ground and forced ourselves to approach.

When he saw us, he smiled a big, warm smile and said, “Relax, you’re in Austria.”

Grove made his way to New York City, where, 3 1/2 years later, he graduated from City College at the top of his class. He married and moved to California, where his parents joined him after obtaining permission to emigrate from the government in Budapest. Grove has never returned to Hungary.

Excerpted from “Swimming Across: A Memoir,” by Andrew S. Grove, published on November 2001 by Warner Books. Copyright (c) 2001. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in the November 26, 2001 issue of Fortune.