Growing up in tough times

Swimming Across    by Andrew S. Grove

viii+290 pp, Warner Books 2001  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

      Andy Grove was born in Budapest in 1936, named Andris Groff. Hungary is a beautiful country, rich in culture and history, with superior schools--but 1936 was a bad time, especially for a Jewish boy. A Fascist government held power--one which willfully joined the Nazis in 1941, when Hitler declared war on Russia. Andy's father was conscripted to a "labor battalion"--slave labor on the front lines--and a while later his wife was informed he had "disappeared." As the tide of war turned, Germans occupied the country, deporting Jews to death at Auschwitz, and then the Russian army arrived, putting Budapest on the front line for about three months.

    After the war, Andy's father reappeared, emaciated but alive, telling about ordeals which many with him did not survive. The Communist party gained power and set up its police state, then in 1956 the Hungarians revolted, only to be crushed by the Soviet army. That was when the author decided to escape to the West, walking at night across the border and towards the bright lights of Austria.

    It all sounds frightening, yet the story is largely upbeat. Life is brighter when one is young, healthy and watched over by caring parents (especially Andy's mother). Apart from bombs and persecution, there were also warm relations with friends, a large web of relatives ready to help, dedicated teachers, excursions, studies, music and chemistry--the latter studied in school and also experimented with at home.

    Beyond all these, here was a young man blessed with a sharp and sensitive mind, which bestows extra benefits and rewards, such as observations and conversations to broaden one's horizon. Life can be quite rich for a person willing to try out a wide range of experiences, just as it can be dull for one happy to stay on a routine track. Underlying it all, too, was Andy's drive for excellence--for earning and getting top marks in class, for analyzing a chemical mixture no student had successfully resolved before. No wonder his physics teacher once told a parent-teacher conference: "Life is like a big lake. All the boys get into the water and start swimming. Not all of them will swim across. But one of them, I'm sure, will. That one is Groff."

    The same metaphor also fits Andris Groff's journey from Budapest to his relatives in New York, where he enrolled in City College. His colleagues soon shortened his first name to Andy, and since his second name was generally mispronounced, he changed it to "Grove" which in English comes close to the original pronunciation. His first big physics test earned him an "F" grade and a meeting with his professor, who suggested dropping the course. No, no--he was just caught off-guard, because the test was conducted with closed texts, not as in Hungary. On the next test, his grade was "A."

    This is a story of Andy Grove's youth. It ends with his early studies in New York, a densely written short book brimming with warm emotion and insights into human character. Did this boy make it to the other side of the lake? You bet. He became one of the founders of Intel and chairman of the corporation. He also brought his parents to the US and had the satisfaction of giving the manuscript of this book to his aging mother for review. One could hardly ask for more.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 7 July 2007