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.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Museum mashup

An exuberance of spirit from centuries past is reflected in a lack of inhibition in combining bright colors, different materials and multiple patterns in everything from jewelry to architecture. Ethnic clothing worn by Hungarians, such as the outfit on left above, easily could have served as inspiration for the current line of clothing featured in Gucci store windows, on the right above. And, in photos down below, I so would love to have a tile floor like those excavated in Buda Castle after World War II.

Taking license from this Hungarian spirit, here is a mashup of photos from four more of Budapest’s museums.

The Hungarian Diet established the Hungarian National Museum in 1808. The classic columned museum housing the collection of historical relics took a decade to construct, opening in 1846. The square in front of the museum became a gathering spot for rallies during the 1848-49 Revolution and War of Independence. Parliament convened there often until the present-day seat of government was completed on the banks of the Danube.

In 1872, the specialized Budapest Museum of Ethnography was spun off from the national museum. In celebration of the 1896 Millennial, 24 buildings characterizing residential styles of different ethnic groups were erected into a “village” in City Park. While the houses were removed, the furniture and clothing assembled to fill them became an important part of the collection. The collection grew, but its home wandered.

Today, its prominent home is across the plaza from Parliament. Topped by a chariot bearing the personification of the guiding spirit of enlightenment, the building originally served as the Ministry of Justice. Following extensive damage in World War II, the structure became home to the Institute of the Hungarian Labor Movement in 1950. The Hungarian National Gallery was moved in later, but its relocation to the Buda Palace freed the hall for the use of the Museum of Ethnography in 1975.

The Budapest History Museum, also known as the Castle Museum, was founded in 1887, moving into its home in the Royal Palace in 1967. In addition to the history of the capital, the museum focuses on artifacts found during excavation and rebuilding of the castle. To learn more about the castle’s turbulent history, please go back to an earlier post.

And then, make a leap to the contemporary. If Peter Ludwig went into the family business, cement might have weighed down his pursuit of art. Instead he married Irene Monheim and ended up in her family’s business, Monheim Schokolade. Collecting was the German couple’s passion.

Porcelain and Delft tiles were followed by rare editions, Pre-Columbian, medieval and then Classical art. But it was Ludwig’s acquisition of American Neo-Dada and Pop Art which first brought him to public attention and made him a celebrity.

At the height of his activities in the mid-Seventies Ludwig was buying on average a work of art every single day. His vast collection not only decorated the company offices and his home at Aachen but was loaned to museums in Germany and abroad. Often the loans became gifts and the museums changed their names in recognition of Ludwig’s great generosity.

Today there are no fewer than 30 Ludwig Museums in Germany and abroad….

Frank Whitford, “Obituary: Peter Ludwig,” Independent, July 26, 1996

In 1989, the Ludwig Foundation donated 70 works of art to Hungary to serve as the core of the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum specializes in post-1945 art to integrate the products of contemporary foreign and Hungarian art into Hungarian intellectual life. In 2005, the museum moved from space in Buda Palace into a portion of a striking new contemporary arts center on the Danube, Mupa Budapest.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Distracting details in all directions

Keeping me moving at any kind of even pace through Budapest would be impossible unless you put a gimme cap atop my head and blinders on the arms of my glasses. Maybe a whip to crack would be required as well.

So many distractions everywhere you glance. I’ve been doling out random photos of them gradually, and here are a few more.