Torture Devices Become Tourism

After having been eliminated from everyday life, all of Hungary’s terrors reside alongside the devil under one roof

Having survived two terror regimes, Hungarians felt it was time to erect a fitting memorial to the victims, and at the same time to present a picture of what life was like for Hungarians in those times. The façade of the museum | Photos: Hans Sterkendries and couresy of the House of Terror Museum

High above, atop a slender column is Archangel Gabriel. Perched, both hands are full. In his right, the Hungarian Holy Crown of St. Stephan – the first king of Hungary – in his left the king’s two barred apostolic cross, awarded by Pope Gregory VII for ushering Christianity into Hungary.

Meters below, mounted around the column on their horses are the seven chieftains of the Magyars. Heading their people’s trek to the Carpathian Basin, Árpád – considered the founder of the Hungarian nation – stands strong and mighty, slightly ahead of his fellow horsemen.

Behind these figures forever immortalized are two matched colonnades in a semi-circular arcade, both lined with seven great figures of Hungarian history. Fourteen copper statesmen and kings in separate arches all are dressed lavishly in green for the never-ending ball. This is Hősök tere, Budapest’s Heroes’ Square.

The symbolic representation of those who died in Hungary faces southwest, along  Andrássy Street, the iconic boulevard dating back to 1872. Among the many beautiful embassies, state buildings, and homes of the elite, is a murky building of indefinite design: this is the House of Terror, cast over with a dark shadow as if the devil himself had hand-picked the four level apartment building.  Both fascist and communist chapters in Hungary had their headquarters at 60 Andrássy Street. Home is where the heart is.

During the long years of repression in Hungary, briefly under a fascist regime and then  40 years of communism, the building was just another seat of bureaucracy. Since then it has been rededicated as a museum to all the victims of torture. Drab and soulless, the inner courtyard that serves as the lobby of the museum is dark with memories of the past.

A T-55 Soviet tank stands guard in a showroom next to the lobby. The main gun droops overhead; the trumpeting through its massive metal trunk would have deafened those who were too close. It feels cold, dead. The turret points towards the faces on a wall – these are áldozatok, the victims. Smiling comrades and Jews all stare down on the crowds.

To those born afterward, it just looks like a grand piece of machinery, a remnant of an era that fascinated; to others it echoes the sound of armored doom, squeaking slowly through the decayed streets on its hard metallic tracks.

The museum tour begins on the top floor and makes its way down to the nightmarish torture basement. An oppressed country’s national struggle slowly unfolds. The museum takes no pity on the cutthroat commanders. Meant to convey the residual anger that many feel towards them, sounds and colors are used to good effect. It is a very emotional experience.

On the third floor, a vast collection of videos document both the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Budapest, including sickening shots of the corpses of Jews, and anyone else who questioned authority, being dumped into the Danube. Speakers in all corners of the room play slow, powerful rock from electric guitars and drums, carrying on into the next rooms.

The second floor is the Hall of the Arrow Cross – the symbol of the Hungarian fascist party, bearing a haunting resemblance to the swastika. The most chilling segment of the fascist floor is a room “dedicated” to Ferenc Szálasi, the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party leader who collaborated with the Nazis. A massive arrow-cross stands at the back of the room with the puppet dictator’s face pasted on it. The most prominent source of light shines on his repulsive face in the otherwise dark room. Authentic Arrow Cross and Nazi uniforms rotate side by side; the harsh voices hang in the air floating from the radio speakers, shouting Nazi propaganda. Behind Szálasi is a bed of flowing water, an ice-cold river meant to represent the many Jews in Budapest mercilessly shot and dumped into the freezing Danube.

inside part of the exhibition | Photo: Hans Sterkendries and couresy of the House of Terror Museum

The Arrow Cross Party lasted from October 15, 1944 to January 1945. Although its reign of terror was short lived, ten to fifteen thousand Jews were murdered. Another 80,000 Jews were shipped to Auschwitz. They have even left a scar on the face of modern Hungary in nationalist movement, Magyar Gárda, “Hungarian Guard,” which is a xenophobic hate group that proclaims itself as a political movement.

On the third floor, a library-like room emerges. The carpet is a massive map of the Soviet Union’s network of gulags. The camps where many Hungarians died have an upside-down, cone-like case containing artifacts from the long deceased. The gut-wrenching personal accounts of gulag survivors are told from screens on the walls, each as unpleasant as the viewer’s morbid interest in wanting to listen to them. Further along the room are massive paintings of Mátyás Rákosi, the Hungarian Communist leader, dubbed the “bald murderer” for killing almost 350,000 officials and intellectuals.

Proclaiming himself as Stalin’s best Hungarian disciple and pupil, Rákosi forced total control in Hungary; whoever opposed him was arrested, jailed, and killed with Stalin-inspired methods. He also invented the slang term, “salami tactics,” relating his methods of killing the enemies of communism to “cutting them off like slices of salami.” Unfortunately, at the start of his reign in 1945 until his term in 1956, he quickly developed a cult-like following, which contributed to the decline of Hungary. It is an eerie display. He stands out as such a friendly character; his big, bald head and thick semi-circle eyebrows complement his mischievous smile of kindness or insanity.

A sense of excitement consumes the audience, as we are led into a huge, dark, glass elevator. The doors close behind us and immediately the question of what awaits us in the basement crosses our minds and reveals itself in the form of a few skeptical looks.

A man appears on the screen placed against the glass wall. Unwillingly, he recalls watching the death of one of his own at the mercy of a garrote. The garrote’s neck brace is forcefully placed around the victim and the executioner, with full force, jams a spike through his spinal cord in order to do as much damage as possible…this being the most humane way to punish those who notice the flaws of authority. As the elderly man’s voice starts to crack and a few tears develop into a stream, his final words are played and the screen goes blank. The elevator door opens.

The same damp air, years old, looms over everyone in the most controversial part of the museum. Many Hungarians have raised their concerns about the need for the basement, arguing that Hungary should leave its dark past behind, rather than expose the morbid reality for the purpose of making money. The horrific words coming from the broken man’s mouth seem to transcend and envelope the area around us.

The basement spreads a mutual feeling of appreciation for one’s freedom; it shouts every victim-country’s refusal to forget. The walls are ice-cold, charred black and filth is spread throughout. Along the narrow hall that leads us toward the exit, multiple rooms are visible, all specializing in some form of torture.  The entire basement seems a medieval version of the hack and slash movie.

The first room contains a tiny “toilet” crammed in next to the dirty wall. The room is empty, not even a door for privacy. Only three black walls surround what, simply put, is a waste pipe sticking out of the ground. I gag even at the thought of using it.

Our group continues through the many cave-like halls that branch off into rooms containing barred windows. Inside the rooms, large selections of torture tools are hung, along with their instructions for use. On other walls, tiny portraits are displayed of victims who had been tortured and killed.

A tiny compartment can be seen from across one of the rooms. It first appears to be a guard’s booth, but in reality it is something completely different. As I cram myself inside the half-meter by half-meter cellblock, I realize that I am standing in some form of extreme solitary confinement… A large wooden door with three metal bars for a window longs to be slammed shut. At the back, an illegible word is scratched into the concrete… the last sane thought of some poor soul before going completely insane within the crevice.

Disturbed, I don’t think twice about closing the door behind me on my way out. I then take refuge in a slightly cozier looking room. What looks like a soft vertical pillow turns out to be thick, dusty and hardened sheets stuffed with a material barely softer then hay. Below, slightly elastic plastic sheets cover the floor. Above it all, as in the other rooms, sharp stones stick out of a badly constructed ceiling and pipes intersect one another before disappearing into the walls. Its door has no window…specifically constructed in this way for the “insane” prisoners.

Thinking it would be a unique experience, I decide to close the door on myself. I am immediately claustrophobic, petrified, as if I can feel the weight of the tank somewhere above me crushing me down. I am forever forgotten within the underground dungeon, harassed by the ghosts of the insane, buried deep in meters of concrete. No one would hear me scream and even if I did, no one would care.

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