Budapest, pt. 3

For our last day in Budapest we went to a couple of museums and ended with the cheery House of Terror.

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The old palace now houses the National Gallery and the old Castle Museum.

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In 1247 King Bela built a fortress on Castle Hill, and though most of that is buried under the building in place today, parts of the castle over the centuries were restored to show us visitors what it looked like. Buda wasn’t the historical capital of Hungary, and it only came into political power during some inheritance arguments during the early 14th century. Over the years Buda’s historical significance grew, and it became the capital in the early 15th century.

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In 1541, however, Buda (and the rest of medieval Hungary) fell under Ottoman Turk control. They didn’t gain independence for 150 years, and soon after fell under the Austrian Hapsburg control.

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A statue of the Magyar/Hungarian ancestors that conquered the region around 900.

Empress Maria Theresa wanted the castle renovated and modernized in the mid 1700s (she’s the mother of Marie Antoinette), which is why the castle is more of a palace with distinct Austrian influence.

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One of the Hapsburg princes loved to hunt, so a statue was built in his honor with his dogs. One of the dogs exploded in a WWII bomb, and was rebuilt after the war ended.

We moved on to the Hungarian National Museum, on the Pest side of the river, to learn a bit about Hungary threw the medieval period. It’s star exhibit is the coronation robe of King St. Stephen, circe 1000.

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I particularly enjoyed the stroll through Ottoman and post-Turk Hungary, as they reclaimed their national identity only to be engulfed by the Hapsburg dynasty (until that fell because of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and WWI).

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We also got to see the crown of King Bela IV, who barely kept Hungary out of the hands of the Mongols and Tatars in 1241-43. Frankly, the Magyars/Hungarians only won because Chenggis Khan died back in Mongolia and the Mongols retreated to go tend to their own country. The Tatars, presumably, decided they couldn’t handle all of Eastern Europe without their ally’s support, and withdrew as well.

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But my personal favorite?

The piano of Ferenc Lizt.

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While I never played Liszt (that I can remember) in high school, I did enjoy listening to his colorful, exciting pieces. I even met a music teacher who had been taught by one of Liszt’s former pupils.

The museum had a corner where we could sit and listen to recordings of Liszt’s more famous pieces and admire the piano. Liszt himself viewed the piano as something of an antique, because it originally belonged to Beethoven. After Beethoven died and his belongings were put up at auction, a music and art dealer bought it and presented it to Liszt as a gift. I can only imagine how overjoyed the Hungarian composer must’ve felt to receive such a present!

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Our last stop of the day (before getting on an overnight train to Serbia) was to the House of Terror.

During WWII the house was the headquarters for the Hungarian Arrow Cross party, known as the “House of Loyalty.” Then, during the Soviet Occupation, it was uses by the AVO and its successor, the AVH, both communist organizations that helped prop up the communist government in Hungary from 1945 to 1956.

In the cellar of this house were dozen of small cells where the Arrow Cross interrogated and tortured anyone suspected of being disloyal to the Arrow Cross regime or their Nazi allies. Teenage boys were drafted to serve at the frontlines as the axis powers gave a last, desperate attempt to fight off the allies. Jews were shot and dumped into the Duna river, and any opposition without international protection could be taken in for “questioning.”

After the Soviets took over Hungary, people began to return home. A few survivors of concentration camps walked back across the border to find any fellow survivors and rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, the Soviets weren’t interested in preserving the lives of the Jews or other ethnic minorities in Hungary (beyond the initial get-them-out-f-the ghettos and bury-the-dead-bodies reaction), and cracked down hard, spreading communism across the country.

The House of Terror became the headquarters for the State Security Office, and later the State Security Authority. Gabor Peter was the head of these organizations. He was barely educated at all and had trained to be a tailor’s apprentice, but instead became the most feared man in the country.

The Soviets instituted gulags across Hungary, interning thousands of Hungarians they perceived as dangerous to communism, even deporting some to Russian gulags in Siberia. Many Hungarians had just gotten out of Nazi camps, and a considerable amount, faced with the horror of going through it all over again, killed themselves.

The House of Terror wasn’t an execution site, though prisoners were measured for hanging and sometimes died from beatings. Throughout the museum was witness accounts, often old women who never found out when or how their husbands died after being taken away by the Soviets. Others survived the interrogations in the House of Terror and spoke of the inhumane conditions, the brutal labor they were forced to do in winter without food or heavy clothing.

There was even a video of a “confrontation” roughly 40 years later. In a room full of metal bunk beds ten grandmothers sat, rigid and angry, their voices tight as they demanded another grandmother apologize. The ten were former prisoners, accused of being disloyal to the state, and the last woman was their prison warden. She kept trying to laugh off what she did, saying, “surely, we had a good time. I always made sure I looked you in the eye.”

“We were terrified of you!” One grandmother shouted back, clasping her purse tight. “How many times did you get us up in the middle of the night to go stand in the courtyard for hours? How many times?”

“Are you serious? I don’t know, once twice?”

“More than that!” another scoffed.

“Girls, girls,” the former guard cajoled. “It wasn’t me doing it. I had orders. I didn’t want to.”

The women laughed bitterly, glancing at one another in solidarity. “Collaborator,” once hissed.

At the end of the museum, as we walked back up from the cellar to the ground floor, we passed by a wall of photos. “These were collaborators, Hungarians who turned on their fellow countrymen,” a sign announced. Some photos were old, taken in the ’40s, others looked more recent. Names and birth/death dates appeared below the photos.

“No wonder the 1956 Uprising happened,” Jordan muttered as we left the building. “Please tell me we’re done with the human rights stuff.”

“There is a Holocaust Memorial museum we haven’t visited,” I mused. “But honestly? After the synagogue and this? I don’t think I can handle it. I’ve studied WWII a lot and I kind of already know what happened. I don’t think we need to do any more today.”

And so that was that for us. We looked around Budapest, at the half-renovated 19th century buildings in Pest, the bustling political center of Buda, and the young people who never knew communism or the Iron Curtain outside their parents’ and grandparents’ stories, and departed. Budapest was pretty much everything we thought it would be–full of culture, history, and a flagship for Central/Eastern Europe.

 

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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