A Difficult History

During our tours we learned that in the 1,100 year history of Hungary, there were many moments of triumph. In the 10th century the fierce Magyar warriors raided other kingdoms as far away as Spain, led one of the Christian Crusades to the Holy Land and more often than not, kicked butt.

But Hungary, and especially Buda and Pest, was often devastated by invasion. While they drove off the Mongol invaders in the 14th century, it was only after losing about a half million people. They were overrun by the Turks, conquered by the Austrians, seized by the Nazis and then lived through the brutal 3 month Siege of Budapest as the Red Army bombarded German strongholds in Buda from across the Danube in Pest. Their Soviet liberators installed a repressive communist government, crushed the 1956 student revolution with tanks, and did not remove their last troops until June 1991.

There are several sites in the city memorializing the turmoil of the 20th century. I have already written about Memento Park, to which all the commie statuary was hauled after the Soviets left, but that was pretty lighthearted compared to the House of Terror, Shoes on the Danube and the Great Synagogue.

House of Terror

The House of Terror (known to earlier generations of Hungarians by its address “60 Andrassy”) is the former home of the Arrow Cross party, the Hungarian Nazis. It was subsequently used as the headquarters of the AVO, the Hungarian Communist secret police.

We were not allowed to take pictures in most of the museum, but we saw offices, cramped cells, “enhanced interrogation” chambers and, in the basement, execution rooms. Some cells were only four feet tall to keep prisoners from standing up. Others were the size and shape of a phone booth, to keep prisoners from sitting or lying down. All were dark and dirty. Videos played of interviews with survivors from that time, telling heartbreaking stories of hardship, torture and lost loved ones. The walls were covered with black and white pictures of the victims, young and old, male and female.

Stone tablets dedicating the museum in 2002. Note the symbol of the Arrow Cross Party, the local Nazis, and the communist star. The emphasis of the museum was mostly the communist era and only a minor portion was devoted to the Arrow Cross period. The Hungarian people seem more comfortable with the image of being victims of Soviet led oppression rather than as the allies of Hitler, complicit in delivering over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

In the four story courtyard, a Soviet tank stands in a pool of water that reflects the thousands of photos of Hungarian victims of the AVO that cover the walls.

Sunlight through a metal awning spells out the word “TERROR” in shadow on the side of 60 Andrassy.

Shoes on the Danube

In a simple yet heartrending memorial to the Holocaust, fifty pair of cast iron shoes line the Danube Promenade on the Pest side. These honor the memory of Hungarian Jews who were seized by the Arrow Cross in the last months of the war, led to the Danube and shot into the water. Thousands who evaded the roundup for Auschwitz met this fate.

The Great Synagogue

The Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe, was built in the 1850s. This beautiful building stood at the edge of the Budapest Ghetto during WWII, was bombed by the Arrow Cross, used as a stable by the Germans, pounded by Soviet artillery in the Siege and then rebuilt with public and private funds in the 1990s.

The beautiful interior is reminiscent of a Roman basilica. Much of the metalwork is reconstructed since the Nazis melted down the originals for the war effort.

In the synagogue courtyard are buried scores who died on the premises from starvation and disease during the ghetto period.

A memorial to the Righteous who worked to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Raoul Wallenberg, an official at the Swedish Embassy, procured Swedish passports for thousands of Hungarian Jews.

In the museum: Nazi propaganda.

A display of ghetto clothing.

It’s frightening to think that every horrifying event that happened at these three memorial sites happened within the last 70 years. This in a sophisticated, western, Christian country.
I guess I can take a small bit of comfort that our own American horrors are mostly farther removed in time, but still, to be so dramatically confronted with the human capacity for evil is wrenching. It makes me wonder which of my neighbors; who among my acquaintances; certainly none of my friends; would hire on to guard the camps.

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