Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Nightmares from the past haunt the city

Unlike the haunted houses that spring up around Halloween, the Terror House of Budapest is open year-round. And, instead of play actors pouncing out of shadows to try to make you scream, this house is filled with the ghosts of real people staring back at you from black and white photos and old newsreels.

Andrassy Boulevard is one of the most impressive in the city, and the Neo-Renaissance building at Number 60 added handsomely to the streetscape when completed in 1880. But a new tenant occupying the building beginning in 1937 proved a case of “there goes the neighborhood.” A branch of the Hungarian National Socialist movement made it the group’s headquarters, the House of Loyalty for the Arrow Cross Party.

With Hitler’s rise, the Hungarian government adopted the yellow star to mark its Jewish citizens. Many were rounded up for deportation to death camps in Germany; others were herded into crowded ghettos in the neighborhood of the Dohany Street Synagogue. In the basement of the House of Loyalty, hundreds were tortured and killed. As a shortcut, instead of shipping Jews out to concentration camps, citizens were lined up on the banks of the Danube, shot and plunged into the icy water.

When the Russian forces finally defeated the Germans occupying Budapest near the end of the war, many greeted the Soviets as liberators. The honeymoon was brief. The Soviets settled in comfortably at the Andrassy address, its headquarters for the Department for Political Police. The basement continued to be a convenient location for torture and hangings.

While hundreds of thousands of Hungarians managed to flee the country, thousands were imprisoned and transported to labor camps in the Soviet Union. A shadow army of informers and spies infiltrated workplaces, universities and churches. One building was no longer enough to accommodate the organization’s needs; the whole block was commandeered for their activities, with the basements connected to form a warren of prison cells. From the end of the war until 1953, more than 35,000 Hungarians were confined to jail. Between 1945 and 1956, close to 400 were executed for political reasons; 152 were executed in the year after the failed 1956 revolt.

The intimate spaces of The Terror House today echo with videotaped testimonies of survivors, with subtitles in English. The museum was opened in 2002 as a memorial to the victims and to preserve these two painful periods of Hungarian history.

The number of millennials stopping to hear the witnesses to the horrors was impressive, hopefully ensuring a new generation will not let history repeat itself under their watch.

I, however, overdosed from the sad stories quickly and did not linger to listen. Holocaust denial is not in my DNA. Like many adolescents, reading Anne Frank had a lasting impact. In high school German class, we watched the black and white flickering reels showing the previously unimaginable scenes of piles of bodies and emaciated survivors found in the concentration camps at the end of World War II. In college, Hollins Abroad summer tour stopped for a visit to Dachau where the ovens stood as evidence to the fate of many. Passing through the highly armed checkpoint between East and West Berlin petrified me as guards slid wheeled mirrors under the bus to make sure no hitchhikers were hiding in a desperate bid for freedom.

Having already visited the Synagogue, the Terror House marked the end of any desire to revisit this period of history. I did not even want to view the shoes along the banks of the Danube representing those who were shot on its banks, but we encountered shoes elsewhere in our wanderings. Almost every museum has a section dealing with those turbulent times and the propaganda or opposition posters relating to them.

And then we made one more stop. One too many for me. The Holocaust Memorial Center. The contemporary building adjacent to a synagogue is dedicated to the persecution of both the Jewish and Roma people of Hungary. The dark interior rooms are filled with more photos and videos of victims. I just wanted out, so much so that I did not even pull out the camera.

The visit plunged me into a temporary depression. I related to some of the older people we encountered in our wanderings. Glumly hunched over. No sparkle in their eyes. Downturned mouths reticent to break into smiles. Suffering from hangovers brought on by the horrors of past decades.

Even though this itinerary was stretched over a month, it was much too intensive. I do not recommend you duplicating the entire agenda. I suggest visiting one or two of the memorials/museums for a smaller dose of real life horror stories, a reminder of what can happen when madmen are in charge.

Unless you are a Holocaust denier. Then the full dose is required as shock therapy.

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