Walking down Andrassy Street in Budapest at high noon can be a chilling experience regardless of the temperature. It’s a beautiful historic boulevard with gorgeous architecture, and you have enjoyed every bit of your Budapest experience up to this point. The food, the people, everything about Budapest is lovely. And then a shadow crosses your path, and it says “Terror”. In English. In big, block letters. And that’s by design. You look up at the building that has created this word and realize that in a not so subtle way, it has also created that feeling within you. It’s grey. It’s austere. It’s imposing. It’s Budapest’s House of Terror, the best museum I’ve ever encountered in all my travels.
This building used to be Nazi headquarters during their brief occupation, and then became the headquarters of a Communist terror organization for 40 years. Untold numbers of people were tortured and killed in this building. It’s a part of history unpleasant to recall, but one which should never be forgotten.
You take a deep breath as you enter because you get the feeling you will need it. When you walk into this building, you are greeted by a huge Russian Tank that isn’t dwarfed by the cathedral ceilings. What does dwarf it, however, are the rows upon rows upon rows of photographs of the people who entered this building and never came out again. It renders you silent. And the eerie music makes the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up.
From there you go up to the top floor and work yourself down to the scary basement, which was the one place on earth you did not want to find yourself in that era. That basement looms in your future the entire time you’re in the place.
What is so incredibly impressive about this museum is that it isn’t row upon row of cases of artifacts and dry explanations. Let’s be honest. Halfway through a museum of that type, you tend to stop reading, stop learning, and you just look at the displays and move on. But this museum isn’t only about informing you. It’s about making you feel like you were there. It uses a variety of displays, including video, abstract art, and actual artifacts, so you are never bored.
There are a lot of videos with English subtitles that show people who have survived this building, people who haven’t, and what was actually happening in Hungary during these occupations. There is a room filled with communist propaganda posters that make you really feel how absurd and yet how powerful and scary the adherents to this movement were. Each room has flyers with an English explanation of the display, which is very helpful and informative.
One room had run out of flyers, however, and I wish it hadn’t. The walls were made of these white rubbery bricks. What did they represent? Rendered human fat? I guess I’ll never know, and that made it all the more chilling.
Another room holds banks of listening devices, and really brings home the fact that you couldn’t say anything to anyone, anywhere, ever. They were listening, and they did not have your best interests at heart. How exhausting to have to live under that level of paranoia just to survive.
As you go downward, ever downward, you are treated to a display of the puppet court that could sentence you to death just for being Jewish, and/or intellectual, and/or an enemy of the State. You really sense the feeling of helplessness.
And then you arrive in the basement. The ceilings are low and feel as if they are trying to crush you. Everything is grey. You see the labyrinth of tiny suffocating cells and the torture chambers, and you can almost hear the sounds of people screaming from years ago. As I peeked into one room, which was designed for a type of torture so horrible that I can’t even bring myself to describe it to you, I was hit by this wall of terror so tangible that I nearly sank to my knees. I had to leave. I mean, I HAD to get out of there.
Perhaps the most profound and meaningful experience in that museum is leaving it. You have been transformed. You have gotten a little tiny taste of what life must have been like under a terrorist government. The fear, the futility, the inevitability of it all, the hopelessness, all of that resides within that building. And then you walk outside into the beautiful city of Budapest and see the hustle and bustle, the variety, the joy that is that place, and you are struck by the fact that they’ve overcome. That it’s possible to survive.
As long as you never forget, it’s possible to be free.