The House Of Terror (Terror Haza) Is Indeed Terrifying
It’s also sobering, enlightening and fairly well-presented, considering how much material they are trying to cover.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of our main themes of this Eastern Europe trip was to learn about how the countries were affected by WW1, WW2, and the Communism era. This House of Terror fits right into that, as it covers Hungary in both wars and the Communist times that followed.
This building is linked to some of the worst times in Budapest and Hungarian history. It housed two destructive regimes: first, the Arrow Cross (which was the Gestapo-like enforcers of Nazi-occupied Hungary); and second, the AVO and AVH secret police (which were the KGB-type wing of the satellite Soviet government).
It was re-done as the House of Terror, opening in 2002, and uses pretty high-tech and conceptual exhibits to document these terrible times in Hungary’s difficult 20th century.
Bit of Historical Background:
In the build-up to WW2, Hungary initially allied with Hitler. They did this for 2 reasons: to retain some degree of self-determination; and to try and regain its huge territorial losses
after WW1 and the Treaty of Trianon (1920), in which two-thirds of Hungary’s former territory (as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and half its population were re-assigned to Romania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia). Many Hungarians became foreigners in their own towns or barred from commuting to where they used to work. Many fled to Budapest. Even today the Treaty of Trianon is regarded as one of the greatest tragedies of Hungarian history.
However, in March 1944 the Nazi-affiliated Arrow Cross took over Hungary. They immediately began to exterminate Budapest’s Jews (many had survived until then), sending many to Auschwitz and executing hundreds in the basement of this actual building. When the Communists moved into Hungary, they took over this building as their HQ for their secret police, the AVO, later renamed the AVH. To discourage dissent, the secret police terrorized, deported, or executed anyone suspected of being an enemy of the state. Thousands of Hungarians were sent to forced labor camps.
The Museum about the Terror
The building is very obvious when you exit from the Metro, as the slanted roof overhang has Terror in large letters and the symbols of the two infamous regimes. Outside are a number of large information boards in Hungarian and English, with harrowing personal stories and memories, about being prisoners of war, doing forced labor, living conditions, poor nutrition, the brutality of guards, for example. As a prisoner on one board explains, “We were herrings in a can.”
One board is devoted to the last Hungarian prisoner of war, Andras Toma. He only returned to Hungary on August 11, 2000: he had been wrongfully imprisoned in a mental hospital for 53 years.
More than 4 million foreign citizens were deported to labor camps in Soviet Union. 85
percent of the prisoners were German, Japanese and Hungarian, including prisoners of war and randomly collected citizens. Seven hundred thousand Hungarian citizens were forced to work in these labor camps, and only 300,000 returned home. Horrifying numbers.
There’s also a gravestone and a chain-wall sculpture, symbolizing slavery/bound in chains/forced labor. The words on this sculpture read: “Shall we live as slaves or free men? (Sandor Petofi). It isolated the East from the West. It split Europe and the World in two. It took away our freedom. It held us captive with fear. It tormented and humiliated us. And finally we tore it down.”
Looking at all of these takes quite a bit of time before you even get inside, and the information is bone-chilling. But, it’s worth it, as inside you can’t take any photos and it’s pretty crowded—this is a big tourist destination.
You can rent an audio guide or do a self-guided tour (perhaps follow Rick Steves tour, or pick up a history information sheet available in each room. There’s also a very good book available in the shop at the end). The tour direction is one way, so you basically follow the crowds. From the entrance and Atrium, you go up to the 2nd floor (walk up or elevator) and then spiral down into the cellars.
There is a lot to absorb (too much on one visit actually) and it’s all rather spine-chilling, as you pass through the rooms with different names and themes. No-one was safe or
immune really—from the Jews, to well-educated people, to anyone seen as a threat to the system. People who were perfectly sane could be put into a mental institution, which was probably enough to drive many really crazy. A black car (now on show behind a gauzy black curtain) must have been a terrible sight to any family, because it was used to go to a target’s house to pick up the supposed threat and bring him/her to the House.
The Atrium, painted grey to create a somber mood, has a Soviet tank, probably a T52, which is a symbol of that era. There’s also a huge wall covered with portraits of the 3,200 Victims of this building.
Upstairs you pass uniforms, then the Gulag Room, the Changing Clothes Room and the Fifties Room. Each room has a story to tell and the name gives a clue as to content. The tour continues to the Resistance Room, and then downstairs to the Resettlement and Deportation section. You then move on to In Surrender of Property and Land, to the AVO, and the Justice exhibits.
Next to Propaganda, and Hungarian Silver, and Religion.
Down in the cellars, you are in the Prison Cellar, with bleak cells and a torture room. Then the Internment Exhibit, and the 1956 Uprising exhibit. After that, the Emigration Room, Hall of Tears and the Room of Farewell. The cellars are the end of the tour and were literally the end for so many people. What you see and learn down there is educational, but in a morbid kind of way.
Also at the end are walls of photos of the Perpetrators, members and supporters of the
Arrow Cross and AVO. You get goose bumps looking at those, Many are still alive and were never brought to justice.
Part of the exhibit is filmed interviews of some of the survivors. These survivors are now getting old and we are getting to the time of the last living survivors, so in many ways it’s good to have all this information collected, as a way not to forget the events or the people involved.
The overall impression is of the scale and magnitude of the atrocities committed in, and from, this building and how that was part of the general victimizing of the population. The victimizers had a systematic pattern of how they went about terrorizing and persecuting. They were masters of torment and intimidation, and of (mis)using their power and might. We can’t help wondering why and how people can become such monsters. There is so much information presented that it’s difficult to assimilate, but one can go home and read the book.
For many Hungarians this museum may be a first step to trying to understand and to find reconciliation for what they lived through in the 20th century.
Address: Andrasy Utca 60. It’s on the M1 metro line. Get out at Vorosmaty Utca
Open 10am-6pm. Closed Monday.
Cost 2,000 forint/adult (about US$7). Sonya got a teacher break again and got in for free.