It is a rare book by a corporate CEO that isn’t either a trumpet blasting his
visionary insight and strategic brilliance or a dramatic and mawkish
retelling of his climb to the top from unimaginably humble origins. Swimming Across: A Memoir – Andrew Grove’s simple, elegant recounting of the first 20 years of his life – is that rare exception.
Grove, one of the founders of Intel and still its chairman, was born Andras
Grof in Hungary in 1936, the only child of parents who were in the dairy
business. We tend to forget that prior to 1945 there was no Iron Curtain,
and countries we think of now as post-Communist had vital histories of their own before the Soviet Union stitched together its empire following World War II.
Grove recounts a happy childhood in Budapest, the country’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. The specter of war loomed large in Europe in the late 1930s, but Grove was too young to be aware of its darker aspects. His family was Jewish and even as a young child he knew that many Jews were forced to live separately in ghettos. But to the young Grove and his playmates, this reality was simply material for another schoolyard game, much to the horror of their kindergarten teacher.
Grove’s early years, before the full force of the war descended upon Europe, were comfortably middle class. Budapest was actually two distinct
communities, the wealthier Buda on one side of the Danube River and the more commercial Pest on the other side. Grove’s family moved to Pest in 1938 when his father expanded the dairy business.
In 1942, Grove’s father was drafted into the Hungarian army. He and other Jewish conscripts were sent to the Russian front not as regular soldiers, but rather as part of a support team sent ahead to clear roadways and build camps, fortifications and other facilities. In 1943, Grove and his mother learned that his father “had disappeared at the front.” The Hungarian army was unable to provide the family with any additional information regarding his father for the balance of the war. While his mother never gave up hope, Grove, who had been six at the time of the draft, had a more difficult time holding onto memories of his absent parent.
In one of the book’s most moving moments, Grove tells us of the doorbell
ringing in their apartment one day in the fall of 1945. His mother opened the door and found “an emaciated man, filthy and in a ragged soldier’s uniform standing at the open door.” As his mother embraced the man, Grove thought, “this must be my father.”
Scenes like this, however poignant, are the book’s chief disappointment. The writing is bland and devoid of emotion. Grove describes everyday life in the middle of a war zone and under the tightening noose of communism and even tells of his mother’s rape by Russian soldiers, but all in prose that is more redolent of a corporate brief than an evocative memoir.
The meatiest part of the book can be found in Grove’s recounting of life in Hungary in the middle 1950s. We see a country that was being slowly strangled by the politburo in Moscow. In 1956, Grove, who had found his passion for chemistry, was looking forward to starting his second year at the university. He was already part of a small class of individuals destined for leadership within Hungary. But in October 1956, Russian troops and tanks rolled into Budapest and clamped down on what had been an incipient, but weak, effort to throw off the Soviet chains.
We can imagine the agony Grove felt at watching his country being
overrun by soldiers intent on enforcing a police state. He knew that many of his friends were in fact fleeing Hungary; Grove’s parents urged him to get out before the borders were sealed. He and two friends made the difficult decision to leave, undertaking a journey to Austria and eventually to America that is the stuff of movies.
Grove found his way to this country through the combined efforts of numerous relief and charitable organizations. Relatives in New York City took him in and helped him adapt to his new life. Grove entered City College of New York and graduated in 1960 with an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering followed in 1963 by a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. The rest, as they say, is history. Grove ends this memoir with his move to California.
In an interview in Esquire magazine in 2000, Grove spoke about his life as an immigrant in this country. In an era when many would have the U.S. close its borders and eject every “foreigner,” Grove’s presence and success is a reminder that the U.S. has been the place for those seeking a better life for almost 400 years. “It is a very important truism that immigrants and immigration are what made America what it is,” Grove writes. “We must be vigilant as a nation to have a tolerance for differences, a tolerance for new people.”