Given that I’m in a relationship with a Hungarian, and his family saw various stages of the Communist era here, I felt it was vital that I visited the House of Terror museum. With some limited knowledge of communism and very little of Hungary’s involvement in WWII, I went in fairly blinkered.
As we entered, we were confronted with the sight of an enormous tank, surrounded by many faces of victims.
The experience then started on the top level and we slowly worked our way through the various rooms and exhibits. The video footage and interviews with survivors had me completely spellbound. I stood watching one particular screen featuring old women, shrouded in headscarves, missing teeth, tears in their eyes, recounting how their husbands were told they had to do three days’ work for the Communist Party. They never came home. They were sent to labour camps and worked, literally, to death. Watching these women talk about how they had ’12 children’, or ‘a day-old baby’, when their husbands left, believing that it was only three days; I could not look away. I felt wretched.
Many of the exhibits were completely in Hungarian, which made it tricky, but each room had an English sheet of information. It was too dense to read as we went, so that’s my homework. B talked about his grandfather spending time in a labour camp. I asked, “why did he have to go?” His response: “I guess because he was a mayor, a judge, university-educated.” Everything that was essentially against the ideals of the Communist Party. I find myself shaking my head in disbelief as I write this.
What I learned, aside from the obvious (regarding corruption, terror, torture, oppression and the dangers of blind faith), was that the Soviets were probably just as bad as the Nazis, but their legacy is not as widely-publicised. Victims of the Soviets were sent unknowingly to their death just like Jews; the Soviets discriminated in the same way. The awful part is, the Hungarians seem to have been lured into Communism as a way of escaping the Nazi regime. (Not that the Communist Party gained complete power through elections in a democratic way – less the 20% of people voted for them, and almost 98% of people voted. The elections were rife with corruption.)
If it wasn’t for the groups who formed their own alliances and plotted various uprisings, I suppose it is possible that the Communist era would have lasted longer. The inspirational stories of courage in a time of terror were incredible, but even more astounding were the anecdotes of injustice. Innocent people who were not even part of the revolutionary groups planning uprisings were wrongly imprisoned, some for many years of their young lives.
The final and most awful part of the House of Terror was the basement. As the powers who used the ‘house’ as their headquarters branched out into different buildings on Andrassy Utca, they created passages underground between the basements of the buildings – essentially a labyrinth of dungeons, cells and torture chambers. Now, in the museum, the elevator slowly travels down to the basement as a video plays of a man whose job it was to clean up after the executions. He talks candidly, almost stony-faced, about how people were hanged and killed in the basement of what is now known as the House of Terror.
The cells were recreated and photos of victims were on the walls. The Hall of Tears features tiny lights in an otherwise dark room, with the names of those who were killed in Hungary all around the walls. By this stage, I felt suffocated and verging on ill… I could not spend any longer down in the basement and made a swift exit. Lucky for me, but not so much for the people who were imprisoned there years before.
Upon reflection, everything I have learned about Hungarians makes perfect sense. I see them as proud, nationalistic, cultured people. They are determined, humble and polite. How could they not be, when they have endured this much?
Post-Script: It has taken me some hours to write and edit this, as I am worried about a) getting my facts wrong, and b) offending anyone.