From the Holocaust Museum, I made my way around the city from Line 3 to Line 1 and found myself back at the Terror House, which had a sizable line and wait time. I waited for about 40-45 minutes to be let in, as the amount of people inside were carefully controlled. I appreciated this, however, coming from a country where as many people as possible are hassled and shoved into each space without room to breathe or consider the view.
Once inside, I started the tour, as it should be done, upstairs, gradually learning about the Soviet takeover of Hungary after the war and how it built up “security networks” of informants across the country. You literally didn’t know who was good and who was going to rat on you. Imagine the fear and the double-crossing, the wonder if what you said would land you in this place, 60 Andrassy Avenue, with an innocent-looking facade belying a dark, sinister purpose.
The history was added to by different rooms with different focuses – one on a church member who tried to protect people and another on propaganda at the time, along with the gulags – and it quietly wound its way to the basement, where the true horror set in. These were brick-walled cells, where political prisoners were kept in deplorable conditions, undergoing psychological and physical torture. Forced to go all day and night with lights on, stand all the time, or sit in cold water – all for mostly imagined crimes against the state. The gallows were shocking, as was the room with red lighting and stakes commemorating the people who had passed through but had not left free.
Names were read out on a speaker in a heavy voice, but eventually, the walls felt claustrophobic and damp. My skin went clammy, and a sense of something that was not right went down my spine. Of course, nothing was right in this place, but there was only so much of it I could handle before I needed to see the daylight again.
There was an iron curtain of chains outside the Terror House and a large chunk of the infamous Berlin Wall. Both were reminders of a past that really wasn’t all that long ago – 1989. Within my lifetime, anyway. I was too young to remember the fall of the wall, but when we looked back at the 25th anniversary this year, a lot of questions invaded my students’ minds – such as, could this happen again? With the struggle in Ukraine over who belongs where and who has sovereignty over what territory, they are right to question what will happen next.
Having studied and taught Chinese propaganda, visited the Communist Museum in Prague, and now this house, I noticed that the purpose is all the same, with only the images and the languages varying. In China, the peasant is glorified in the 1950s and 1960s, along with national unity and allegiance to Chairman Mao. In the Czech Republic, it was the coal miner who was king and being a good socialist. In Hungary, we return to peasants and industrial workers, the backbone of farming and industry.
With collectivization, however, people lost the chance to be their own bosses and make their own profits. After the routing out of Communism in Europe in the 1980s/1990s, businesses regrouped, and the globalizing influences of fast food chains, American/British clothing stores, and the idea of having “stuff” took off. The next day’s visit to Szeged and the Pick Salami and Paprika Museum actually confirmed this for me, but I’ll detail that in another post.
I still had one more stop on my journey into Hungary’s saddening past, but first, I had to take a breather. Outside, I gathered my thoughts, bought a coffee from an obliging cafe, and walked down the beautiful street. Pink and white blossoms were exploding from trees, a hopeful reminder that with every turn from winter, spring is right there waiting to renew everything.
This is what people look for – the hope. Even the longest winters in history will have their springs.