In 2013, I was on a journey of self-discovery when I decided to quit my job, put good use to my savings account, and book a one-way ticket to London. From there, I traveled extensively to nine different countries, each one more captivating than the last, to better understand the world, human nature; and most importantly, to better understand myself.
As my money began to deplete, I ventured to one last destination: Budapest, Hungary. My great-grandmother was Hungarian, so it felt fitting to end my travels paying homage to my own linage. Budapest, the nation’s capital, is breathtakingly beautiful, with stunning architecture and some of the best food I’ve ever tasted.
I spent time leisurely walking the city, bathing in the famous Szechenyi Baths, and drinking with locals at infamous ruin bars. However, nothing affected me more than my visit to one of the darkest and most historical museums in the world: Budapest’s House of Terror.
Interrogations, Torture, and Murder
Upon entering the museum, you are confronted with hundreds of framed photos, each a portrait of someone lost during two terror regimes within the 20th century. The building itself was occupied first by the fascist Arrow Cross Party, a short-lived organization that controlled the Hungarian government from October 1944 to April 1945, the final years of World War 2.
Then, when the Soviet Union Red Army seized Hungary in 1945, the building was inhabited by the Communist Secret Police (ÁVH) who would imprison, torture, and kill those suspected of rebelling against the Soviet empire.
Six Months of Terror
The first section of the museum focuses on Budapest’s position during WWII. As you roam the hallways, TVs stream black and white footage of Nazi soldiers, Hitler, and the horrifying images of innocent civilians, mostly Jewish, being sent away to concentration camps.
Ferenc Szálasi, Hungarian Prime Minister and leader of the Arrow Cross Party only ruled for 163 days, but in that time, members of The Arrow Cross Party killed thousands of Hungarians and deported over 80,000 to concentration camps in Austria.
Although the six months of The Arrow Cross Party’s reign was terrifying, it was at least short-lived. As Hungarian’s hoped the worst of their nightmare was over, little did they know, it was only beginning.
40 Years of Terror
As you continue through the harrowing levels of the museum, walls of propaganda display the brainwashing tactics militia used on Hungarian civilians. In addition, various spy tools were used mercilessly against the public as the ÁVH followed, listened, and imprisoned anyone they felt was a threat to their regime.
While the Nazi uniform displays and the Soviet Union memorabilia were horrific in themselves, nothing prepared me for the final part of the museum tour: the visit to the basement.
The Final Descent into the House of Terror
As you enter an elevator that begins a slow, dramatic descent, you watch as a former custodian of the brutal police headquarters describes the acts of violence he witnessed, the deaths he encountered, and the continuous hauntings he faces when looking back on his time as a forced bystander of the Arrow Cross Party and the ÁVH’s torture.
As the elevator doors open, you walk through a small, cold, cemented basement, full of dark energy and tiny cells that housed the innocent victims who were beaten, tormented, and killed.
While prisoners were kept in jail cells as they awaited trial, many for outlandish or unverifiable crimes, the Arrow Cross Party, as well as the ÁVH, conducted a variety of disturbing punishments, with dedicated cells to carry out the heinous acts.
One technique included filling up a cell with cold water and locking a prisoner inside for hours to be submerged in the icy liquid. Other rooms blocked victims from sunlight or were built so narrowly that there was no space to move around.
A New Era for Budapest
While the museum, especially the basement, is heartbreaking to endure, the visit ends with a bit of relief as you watch old footage of ecstatic Hungarians cheering as ÁVH commanders flee from the country. Peace was finally restored to the beautiful city of Budapest in 1991.
As a final tribute to the many lives lost in the House of Terror, the last viewing is the wall of the victimizers: the supporters, and members of the ÁVH who conducted years of rigorous torture but were never brought to justice. As many are still living to this day, they continue to lead normal lives.
The evocative statement is a strong one, and although the wrongfully murdered victims never received the justice they deserved, something tells me they’re still with the ones who wronged them.