Friday 2nd October 2015, Budapest
Today we reluctantly decided that although we already knew more than we would wish about the horror and suffering faced by the peoples of Central Europe for much of the 20th century under the iron control of both the Nazis and the Communists, we really ought to visit the museum and memorial to the victims persecuted under those evil and repressive regimes.
Being here in Budapest I have an additional reason to respect the suffering of the ordinary Hungarian people. In 1956 I was just eleven. One day a Hungarian girl of the same age, unable to speak English, was brought into my classroom and my headmistress asked me to take care of her and be her friend. As her command of English developed she was able to explain to me what had happened to her and her family that resulted in them fleeing their homeland and becoming political migrants to Britain. Her father was outside the country at the time of the uprising and immediately sought political asylum abroad. Somehow, together with her mother and younger brother my friend managed to cross the border into Austria, hiding in wet ditches and trying to remain silent whenever communist soldiers were nearby. Eventually they found their father and ended up in England where the nuns running my convent school cared for them until they could be properly settled. We stayed firm friends throughout our childhood and eventually my father was able to sign the naturalisation papers for her that led to her becoming a full British subject. She was then safe to return to Budapest to see her grandmother, too elderly to have attempted to flee. My friend eventually married and went to live in South Africa. Sadly we have now lost touch though I remember her with much affection. The few Hungarian words and phrases I understand were taught to me by my friend.
Below is a report on The House of Terror without illustrations as photos were not allowed.
The museum/memorial is located on the grand radial boulevard of Andrassy út, at no. 60, a neo-classical mansion built at the end of the 19th century. From 1937 a branch of the fascists rented part of the building which the leader Szálasi dubbed the "House of Loyalty" and from 1944 to 1945, as the home of the fascist Arrow Cross party it became the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis. After liberation by the Soviet forces the building was taken over by the notorious state security organisation the ÁVO and later by its successor the ÁVH. State security vacated the premises after 1956 and all traces of their occupation were removed until 1998 when the construction of a memorial to both the fascist and the communist terrors became the pet project of Hungary’s Orban government. The museum was opened in 2002 and while being generally admired it has not been without controversy. It has been accused of making a Disneyland out of this period of history, but there is certainly no escapism here, although some of the rooms are as much art installations as they are exhibitions, normally hard-hitting, sometimes puzzling. A more serious criticism is that there is insufficient distinction between the fascists and the communists, and the part played by Hungary in the persecution of Jews and other minorities is played down. Indeed, before we knew it we had left that period behind us and were in Soviet times. Admittedly though, Nazism occupied fewer years than the Soviet domination and the holocaust is treated more fully elsewhere in Budapest. Most room have screens with newsreel footage and moving personal testimony with English subtitles – sometimes the conflicting soundtracks make for cacophony, but perhaps that is the point – hundreds of victims being given their voice. The museum is on three floors and a basement and in the courtyard a tank is parked, surrounded by walls lined with the portraits of victims. A list of some of the rooms will give an idea of the scope.
Room 201. Double occupation
The fact that Hungary was effectively under German and then Russian occupation.
Room 202. Arrow Cross Party
The Hungarian Nazi party.
Room 205. Gulags (Communist Concentration camps.)
Many thousand of Hungarians regarded as undesirables were moved to forced-labour camps, mainly in the USSR where many died. Among those swept up in this purge was Raoul Wallenberg who had saved many Jews. Internment was also carried out internally. In 1961 the Kádár regime concentrated some 10,000 unreliable individuals in "suitable camps".
Room 206. Changing clothes
Two uniformed mannequins back to back symbolise the way many Arrow Cross persecutors turned their coats to serve the Soviets.
Room 207. The Fifties
Shows the Soviet system getting its grip on the Hungarian state and economy.
Room 208. Room of the Soviet advisors.
Even before the communists came to power in the rigged elections of 1947, advisors such as Marshall Voroshilov and ambassador Andropov were in Budapest to give guidance.
Room 210. Resistance.
Between 1945 and 1956 some 50,000 individuals were brought before the courts charged with sedition and about 400 were executed. Opposition was a risky business with the all-pervasive network of informers in every factory and apartment block.
Room 101. Resettlement and deportation.
After the war hundred of thousands of members of ethnic groups were forcibly moved: 200,000 German "Schwabs" from Hungary, 100,000 Hungarians from Czechoslovakia, 60,000 Slovaks from Hungary, 10,000 "kulaks" (land-owning peasants) lost their land. Residents by the Yugoslav border were moved in 1951 and 1952. 15,000 residents were forcibly evacuated from Budapest in 1951 etc.
Room 105. Peasants
Shows how the peasantry suffered, particularly the smallholding "kulaks" on whom ever higher demands were made, a process culminating in collectivisation and the resettlement of agriculturalists.
Room 106. Ante-room of the Hungarian Political Police
The Political Security Department was set up in 1945 with Gábor Péter at its head. He survived until 1953 when he ended up behind bars in a Stalinist purge.
Room 108. Justice
Details show trials and the use of confessions obtained under duress. Several sections of the museum deal with terror and torture.
Room 109. Propaganda
This room reveals just how boring life must have been in Soviet times with the endlessly repeated catchphrases being trotted out by the politicians and the state-controlled media. Ian was bombarded with these in the GDR during a study visit in 1965.
Room 110. Everyday life
A room full of posters advertising the products of state controlled industries.
Room 112-113. Churches
Shows the pressure put on churches, not just the Catholic, but also the Lutheran and Reformed churches and the Jewish community. Clerics were branded as reactionary forces. Cardinal Mindszenty was put at the head of the Catholic Church by the Vatican in 1945. He was arrested in 1948 and sentenced in 1949. Liberated by the insurgents in 1956, he took refuge in the American embassy on the day of the armed attack by the Soviets on the streets of Budapest. He stayed there until 1971 when he was allowed to emigrate.
At this point we entered the lift down to the basement. It descended very slowly while, from a screen, a witness described in detail the procedures followed during a hanging – the longest and most unpleasant lift journey we have ever made. This softens visitors up for the prison and torture cells, a number of which have been reconstructed, showing the ingenuity of cruelty. Although the gallows shown are apparently real ones, no executions are known to have taken place in Andrassy út even though prisoners may have died from ill-treatment or neglect.
From there we moved on to the hall of the 1956 revolution and the retaliation that followed. Then came a room about emigration following the uprising of 1956, and a final picture gallery of the perpetrators, many of whom were still alive, as the persecution continued, although at a diminished level, until 1989.
At last steps led us up from the doom and gloom into the bright sunlight of the street. We were mentally battered and bruised and so very thankful that we did not ourselves live through such horrific times.
After this we needed something to lighten the mood and set off in search of a coffee and cake. It was a day for collecting heavy rubbish, and gipsies, the only ones we have seen since we arrived, were picking over the furniture, rugs and household items left on the street for collection.
The little Földalatti museum was actually open this time and we popped in for a delightful visit. It’s a pity to find we are so often the only people looking some of the less commercial museums, which is a pity. This one was charming, tracing the development of the Budapest metro system from the building of the city’s first underground train which opened in 1896. The Austro-Hungarian Emperor travelled on the line when it was first opened and gave his permission to name the railway after him – The Franz-Joseph Electric Underground Railway.
A friend contacted us recently suggesting we should try the New York Cafe for a coffee. So we made our way there. It proved to be a magnificent building but being tight-fisted we took a photo and, avoiding the queue for a table in this magnificent palatial building, went somewhere rather less expensive – and less illustrious. Thanks for the suggestion though.
Saturday 3rd October 2015, Budapest
Today we returned to St. Margaret Island to enjoy a relaxing and sunny day with the families of Budapest. We only got an impression on our earlier visit and there were places we wished to see in more detail. First though we sat beside the fountains at the southern end of the island listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while the fountains danced, sending spurts, cascades and swirling jets of water high into the air perfectly synchronised with the music. Meanwhile, unconnected with the fountain display, somebody was producing giant bubbles nearby. Those that escaped the eager jumping of dozens of children trying to burst them floated as glistening rainbow spheres above the fountains until a particularly high jet of water inevitably burst them.
We wandered through the park, enjoying the colourful rose garden, Japanese garden and the shady woodland of chestnut trees. Children were gathering bags of conkers. Their shiny skins are quite irresistible.
There is also a little zoo of rescued animals which is free to visit and very popular. We discovered roe deer, owls, birds of prey, ravens, several storks with damaged wings, rabbits, ducks, geese, chickens and peacocks, even several ponies. We also found a pond with fish and turtles.
There are several ruined religious buildings on the island dating from mediaeval times. These include the Dominican convent where St. Margaret was placed by her father King Bela IV at the age of nine, fulfilling a pledge he made to offer her to God if Hungary was spared in its battle against the Mongols. The other ruin of note was a Franciscan church dating from the 13th century.
At lunchtime we stopped for a hot cheese baguette and a Soproni beer at a riverside buffet. Masochistic joggers ran past continuously in their determination to complete several circuits of the island as relaxation from their weekday office work. Later we sought out the spa but, as we feared, it was for health rather than pleasure and provided various treatments we didn’t want rather than a warm swimming pool with space to actually swim. There was though, the après-torture of coffee with chocolate cream cakes on the terrace of the spa. This was agreeable if pricey and much enjoyed by Ian. He will miss these treats when he gets home!
The day would have been perfect except that I fell walking through the woods. My foot just collapsed on the uneven ground and I sprawled headlong. I’ve still got several colourful bruises from the fall last week! Really I don’t deserve to have so many tumbles and I get very distressed by them. I am, after all, an elderly lady now and I fear one day I may do some serious damage. Thankfully I just have some new bruises and a grazed knee and elbow. As usual people rushed to help me. I know it is kindly intended but I wish they’d let me find out if I’ve broken anything before hauling me to my feet. As last time my fall was mainly due to my bad eye and the bright sunlight, plus a momentary distraction from watching where I place my feet.
Cars are not allowed on the island but there is a huge range of alternatives. Kids arrive on roller blades, scooters and bicycles while at the entrance to the island you can hire tandems, peddle cars and even tiny electric cars. There are scores of segways rolling along the paths and a couple of little road trains to carry visitors from end to end of the island.
Overall we have spent a very pleasant day. By the time we left it was late afternoon. Before returning to the flat we took a stroll through an unfamiliar part of the city ending up at the Nyugati railway station with the posh Macdo’.
Along the way we found ourselves at the Opera House and slipped inside to take a look. This, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, was designed by Ybl Miklós whose modest home we visited in Székesfehérvár. There are daily tours of the interior of the Opera followed by a short concert, A very friendly young man told us we were too late for the afternoon tour which was just finishing, but we could listen to the recital if we cared to sit on one of the alcove seats where there were some excellent acoustics. So we rested our weary feet and listened to the magnificently powerful voice of somebody singing selections from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte! Admit it, you never expected me to write about opera in these blogs did you?
We continued our walk to Deak Tér where we caught the bus across the river and up the hill to the flat. In a nearby junk shop we managed to buy a wine glass to replace the one in the flat that Ian has completely worn out during our stay here!
I have just realised that despite being tone deaf and a lifelong devotee of Mick Jagger, I started today’s blog with Vivaldi and ended it with Mozart! What is happening to me?