Be Careful What You Write, It Can Break Your Heart

Be Careful What You Write,

It Can Break Your Heart

Thirty-five years ago, a Hollywood screenwriter discovered that a film he wrote about a Hungarian war criminal, Music Box, was reflected in the real-life story about his own flesh and blood. Today, as the Israel-Gaza war rages on, it reignites deep reflection on the past and leaves his heart breaking yet again for the violence of our time

By Joe Eszterhas

ISTVAN ESZTERHAS, CIRCA 1940s Courtesy of Joe Eszterhas

I was born in Hungary in 1944 but grew up in British and American refugee camps in Austria after World War II. I came to the United States when I was seven years old with my mother, Mária, and my father, Istvan, a Hungarian novelist. 

As I grew up in America, my father became the most important person in my life. He was the editor of a small Hungarian-language newspaper, the Catholic Hungarians’ Sunday. My mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and I had always understood that she was a victim of the war and the refugee camps where women sold themselves to American soldiers for Hershey bars to feed their starving children. 

I was a loner, a bullied refugee kid with a big chip on my shoulder and a bad temper. I got into serious trouble in the back alleys of Cleveland, Ohio. I ran with a gang of other poor kids with chips on their shoulders and zip guns in their pockets. We rolled drunks, broke into grocery stores, stole cars, and got into brass knuckle fights. When I was 13, I hit an older kid, who had bullied me, in the back of the head with a baseball bat. He almost died. I almost went to jail. 

The fact that I didn’t was thanks to my father, a cerebral little man with a bad limp from childhood scarlet fever. 

He convinced me to stay out of the back alleys and instead…to read. He taught me to never judge a man by his race, color or religion but only by his character. To judge all people with humanity and compassion. 

I watched him as he yelled, red-faced, at Hungarians in his office for saying horrible things about Jews. “You can’t say these things in my office—you can’t say these things in America! What you’re saying is wrong!” He was most often yelling at the priests and monks who ran the paper. 

I admired my father for the way he stood up against what he believed was wrong. By letting me see him in action as I played with toy soldiers on the linoleum floor in his office, my father took the big chip off my shoulder. He convinced me that, in America, anything was possible, that you didn’t need connections like you did in Hungary. In America, the streets were paved with gold if you worked hard enough. He convinced me that if I did that, I could not only be a writer like he was but that I could be a rich and successful American writer. 

So I read and read and read…and finally stayed out of the back alleys, away from the cheap Thunderbird wine and the dangers there. And after a while, shakily and with trepidation, I started to write. I became the editor of my high school newspaper, and I found myself, a refugee kid, picked for a local radio station’s High School Hall of Fame. 

I worked hard and got a scholarship to college. I became the editor of my college newspaper, and in my senior year, I won the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s national award as the Outstanding College Journalist in America. And the refugee kid went to the White House and got a medal from Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. It was the first time I’d been on an airplane. A Hearst limousine met me at the airport and took me to a gigantic suite at the Mayflower Hotel. I was awed. 

I became a reporter for two newspapers and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I went to a national magazine (Rolling Stone) and wrote a story there that turned into a book that turned into a finalist for the National Book Award. 

My father bragged about me to all of his friends, and I became a major celebrity in Cleveland’s Hungarian community. And, after my book was read by a studio executive, I started writing screenplays. 

I had a couple of hits—Flashdance and Jagged Edge—and I asked my father to join me at Hollywood premieres where we walked the red carpet together, almost arm in arm, and I saw my father smile like I’d never seen him smile before. He was glorying in my success, glorying in his son, “Jozsi Eszterhas, the great American writer.” 

I had taken my father’s advice about judging people only by their character—not their religion, not their skin color—and I was active in human rights and social justice and civil rights causes, both as a writer and personally. 

I had lunch with the Reverend Martin Luther King. I had a shotgun stuck in my belly by a white racist cop in Neshoba County, Mississippi. I was busted while marching in Selma, Alabama, and spent a night in jail. I drank cognac with Huey Newton at his bar in Oakland. I did interviews with Allen Ginsberg and described how senselessly he was arrested and abused by a homophobic white cop. Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city, was my friend, and I helped write his speeches. I did fundraisers with the Anti-Defamation League. I visited Dachau and then went to Israel, a magical place I came to love. 

“I always wanted to see the Holy Land,” my father said. “I envy you the trip, Jozsi.” I asked him to join me, but he said he wasn’t in good enough health to come. 

In Jerusalem, I spent four days at Yad Vashem, the world’s most famous Holocaust museum, where I read as much about the Holocaust in Hungary as I could. 

After my days at Yad Vashem, I wrote a screenplay about the Holocaust in Hungary, focused on a war criminal who’d been hiding in the United States for years. I called it Sins of the Fathers. 

Producer Irwin Winkler and director Costa Gavras and I had done a film—Betrayed—about right-wing racism and anti-Semitism in America. When I showed them my script, they both said they wanted to be involved, though Costa had a new title: Music Box

Director Costa-Gavras, Joe and Jessica Lang on the set of Music Box, Courtesy of Joe Eszterhas

I sent the script to my father, and after he read it he said, “I’ve never been more proud of you, Jozsi, than I am at this moment.” I glowed with his praise. It took me back to those days when he raged at the Hungarians for their anti-Semitism. 

Two years after Music Box was released, my father called me. He was very upset. He told me that he had received a letter from the American Justice Department officially informing him that he was the target of an investigation relative to war crimes he had allegedly committed in Hungary during the Second World War. He sounded like he was crying. “This not true, Jozsi,” he said weakly, “It not me that do this. They make big, big mistake.” 

I was thunderstruck. I was completely bewildered. What a horrible mistake! It occurred to me that it was exactly the line of dialogue in Music Box where the American daughter (Jessica Lange) is defending her Hungarian war criminal father who has been hiding in America and her father says, “It not me. They make mistake.” 

I flew back to Cleveland and hired the best attorney in town, an old and good friend of mine, Jerry Messerman, a Jewish man who had lost relatives in the Holocaust. 

Two weeks later, the hearing began in Messerman’s conference room. Two of the stars of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations—Neal Sher and Eli Rosenbaum—were there, leading a six-member team. 

As they presented the allegations and their evidence, it quickly became apparent that my father was…in serious trouble. The charges were deadly, and so was their evidence. I felt my heart skipping beats and my face flushing as I heard what the Justice Department people were saying. 

My beloved father had written a book—Nemzet Politika—that called Jews “parasites” (Hitler’s favorite word for Jews) and called for “the iron fist of the law” to be used in their “total eradication.” The Justice Department had translated the book from Hungarian to English so we could see the full horror of what was in it. 

My beloved father had been in charge of book burnings of all Jewish writers. My beloved father and mother had lived in an apartment that had been forcibly taken from its Jewish occupants. 

My father had been in charge of burning incriminating government documents at the very end of the war as Russian liberating troops approached Budapest. 

My beloved father had been a key figure in the Hungarian government’s prime ministry, an avowed German Nazi puppet government called the Arrow Cross. 

My attorney and I froze as the OSI unreeled their charges, and my father kept shaking his head and saying, “No, no, no, no, no,” to each charge. Messerman and I were both staring, unblinking, at the conference room table. I noticed too, that the Hungarian woman presenting much of the evidence—Judit Schulmann —had such loathing for my father that she was unable to even look at him as she spoke. 

The deadliest existential question was this: How many Hungarian Jews had been killed or brutalized because of the vicious and inciting things in my father’s book and the many horribly anti-Semitic articles that he had written for various Hungarian publications—copies of which were now spread across the table? It was a vast and numbing display of evidence. 

I realized that what they were saying was that my father could be accused of having been an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of Jewish people. 

As a final gesture, Schulmann put on the table a photo I.D. which showed that my late mother—my devout Catholic mother who had died holding my hand—had been a card-carrying member of Hungary’s Nazi party, the Nylas. 

The OSI also revealed that after the war was over, my father, mother and I had fled to a Nazi camp called Perg for high-ranking friends and allies of Hitler’s German Nazis. My father had always told me that the camp we had fled to was Mauthausen, a concentration camp. Very much to the contrary, we were Hungarian Nazi VIPs, seeking German haven at Perg. 

When the hearings were over, I had difficulty looking at the man who had been the most important person in my life and without whom I couldn’t have achieved any of the things I did—my beloved father. I went to a bar and had a lot to drink. And the following day, Messerman and I went to another bar and I had even more to drink. 

The third day I went to my father’s house and asked him questions: “How could you have done all these things?” 

He said, “I did it all for you, Jozsi. Everybody in Hungary was an anti-Semite. I did it to get ahead in Hungarian society.” 

I knew it was bullshit. He had written the book and most of those articles long before I was born, many, many years before he had even met my mother. 

I asked him if he regretted the things he had done. 

He said, almost casually, “Of course, Jozsi, of course.” 

I said, “How could you, a writer, organize book burnings?” 

He said, “They ordered me to do that. I didn’t want to.” 

More bullshit. It was the Adolf Eichmann defense: Just taking orders. 

“How could you live in a place that you knew had been taken from Jews who were shipped off to Auschwitz?” 

He said, “We didn’t know that the apartment had been requisitioned from Jews—and we didn’t know anything about Auschwitz, either.” 

We said nothing to each other for a long time and then my father said, “Why are you so cold to me?” 

I stared at him and was able to say nothing. 

My father said, “You hate me now, Jozsi!”

I said, “I hate the things you did, Pop.”

ISTVAN ESZTERHAS, CIRCA 1992 Courtesy of Joe Eszterhas

We sat there and he said, “I love you, Jozsi, but you hate me now.” I sat there a long moment, shook my head and left. 

The Justice Department didn’t deport him and didn’t file any charges and some said they didn’t because he was 85 years old, but also because they knew that the publicity could hurt my career and they thought it would be unfair to do that. My father had even lied on his visa application to the United States, saying that he was a “printer.” It seemed to me that they had enough evidence just based on the falsity of the visa application to deport him. But they didn’t. 

What has haunted me for years is this: Did he tell me all those things about not judging a man by his race or religion but by his character to give himself the best alibi possible? A son who stood for all the things that he didn’t? Or did he truly have regrets and wanted to raise a son exactly the opposite of himself? I will grapple with that question until the day I die. 

There was a more elemental question that I was dealing with: What made me write a “fictional” film about a Hungarian war criminal hiding in America? My father, I knew now, had been doing that all of his adult life. And now it was left to me and to my old friend Messerman to defend him like Jessica Lange defended her father in my film. 

So what made me write this story? I had a friend who was a psychologist who said that I must have seen or heard something when I was a child and that I was afraid to confront what I had seen and heard, so I wrote a film about it… in order to confront it. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what made me write Sins of the Fathers. Even the title is suspicious. It is another question that I will grapple with forever. 

I didn’t see or speak to my father for a long time. I didn’t take his phone calls or call him. Once he even called the Malibu police department to do a wellness check because he hadn’t heard from me. And I knew what hurt him the most: I didn’t let him see or talk to his grandchildren—exactly what Jessica Lange had done to her fictional father in Music Box

My father became more feeble, suffering several strokes. I paid for nursing care at his home, and when he needed to go to a nursing home, I paid for that, too. But when he was dying and I got a phone call from his Hungarian nursing home that he was calling my name and asking for me…I didn’t go to be there at his bedside as he died. 

There are moments these many years later that I deeply regret that, and other moments that I’m proud of myself for not going. 

I went to his funeral, and when I went back to Hungary some years after he died, I took his driver’s license and put it on his father’s grave. It was my way of returning my father to Hungary. 

After his death, I spent a lot of time reading about the Holocaust. I had some insatiable need—maybe penance for my father’s sins—to do that. Writer Elie Wiesel, the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize Laureate, became my favorite writer, and I was determined to read all of his books. He wrote more than 40 of them, but I’m well on my way to reading them all. 

Elie Wiesel was a Hungarian Jew who spoke fluent Hungarian and whose words are like bullets to my heart. Hungarian gendarmes beat Elie, his mother and father, his two older sisters and his little eight-year-old sister—with truncheons and sticks as they forced them onto the cattle car that took them to Auschwitz. 

Their Hungarian neighbors stood laughing and pointing and yelling “Look at the stinking Jews!” as the gendarmes stripped his mother and sisters naked in the train station square and violated them with their bloody fingers looking for the jewels that they believed all Jews hid in their body parts. 

In the final weeks of the war when the Russians were liberating Hungary, the Hungarians rounded up the Jews who hadn’t been taken to Auschwitz and, because they were out of ammunition, strangled them and drowned them in the Danube. 

When I read Elie Wiesel’s account of these events, I felt deeply ashamed of having been born Hungarian. I was happy that I had completely lost my boyhood Hungarian accent. 

On October 7 of last year, Never Again became Once Again. Butcherings. Slaughterings. Beheadings. Rapes. The Chosen People are once again chosen for unfathomable torture and unbelievable horror. I watched it endlessly on television and online for days. I felt hollowed out and enraged and angry at God. 

I bought a Star of David dog tag and wore it as the carnage continued. One night I fell asleep in front of the television and I dreamed that I was in the tunnels with the IDF and with the Irgun and with the Haganah. I had a gun and a battle helmet. We were crawling through pitch-black netherworld tunnels with monstrous hobgoblins flashing across the tunnel walls: Hitler and Mengele and Himmler and Goebbels and the rest of their hellish, murderous accomplices … and trailing behind them all was a little man with a limp … the Hungarian novelist … the editor of the Catholic Hungarians’ Sunday newspaper … just another war criminal … my once-beloved father. 

He said one word: “Jozsi!” And I startled awake. 

I sat there for a very long time and then I went up to my library where I keep all of my Elie Wiesel books and picked one without even looking at what it was. I just felt a desperate need to hear Elie’s voice. 

I opened the book, looked at the page, and Elie spoke directly to me without the usual poetry in his words: 

“Only the guilty are guilty. Their children are not.” 

Thank you, Elie Wiesel. 

I kept reading for a while, and Elie said something else that has become a personal coda to me. He wrote: “I believe in God–in spite of God! I believe in Mankind–in spite of Mankind! I believe in the Future–in spite of the Past!”

I would add a few words to that. It is a lesson that I’ve learned since my once-beloved war criminal father’s death: 

I believe in love, in spite of love. 

I can’t watch Music Box anymore … but I never take my Star of David dog tag off, not even at night. Be careful what you write, I tell young screenwriters. Be very, very careful. What you write can break your heart. ⠁

Joe Eszterhas


Joe Eszterhas was born in Hungary and grew up in refugee camps in Austria and Germany and in Cleveland, Ohio. He has written eight books, including two New York Times Top Ten bestsellers, but he is perhaps best known as the screenwriter of 19 films, including Flashdance and Basic Instinct. His essay chronicles how, after penning Music Box about a Nazi war criminal living in the United States, he discovered he had unknowingly written about his cherished father.