Budapest, pt. 3

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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


But my personal favorite?

The piano of Ferenc Lizt.


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!


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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Budapest, pt 2

So we strolled down to the banks of the Duna river to see the iron shoe memorial.


In 1944, members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross political party (basically Hungarian Nazis) and militia rounded up 60 Jews, brought them here, ordered them to take off their shoes, and shot them. The river carried away their bodies.

In 1941 Hungary had a population of roughly 825,000 Jews, though 100,000 were Christian. Because Hungary saw Judaism as a race as well as a religion, those Christians were still umped in with the rest. A far-right wing government after WWI restricted the freedoms of many Jews, even Hungarian Jews (Jews with Hungarian citizenship), but resisted deporting them until the middle of the war. To keep Nazi Germany happy, Hungary joined the axis powers and restricted Jewish freedoms even more. They forced young Jewish men to work in horrible conditions for war-related construction work. Many died. The government deported over 20,000 Jews north, where Nazis killed them. The government picked off their Jewish population little by little, usually going for those without Hungarian citizenship. (A good case can be made that this was intentionally slow-footed by the government leader Hrothy, who defied Hitler several times by slowing the deportation trains to Auschwitz). They also killed over 28,000 Hungarian Romani, something that decimated the European Romani but often gets lost in the bigger numbers and broad brushstrokes of WWII.

In 1944, however, Nazi Germany invaded, with help from the fascist, far-right-wing Arrow Cross political party. Under Nazi supervision, the new Hungarian government deported around 440,000 Jews to death camps. By 1945, the only Jewish population left relatively untouched was the 150,000-200,000 in Budapest. Of course, they had suffered losses along the way, as the iron shoes memorialize. The Arrow Cross killed over 3,000 people in Budapest, 800 of those were Jews.

Inside the iron shoes today are candles, dried flowers, and pebbles. In Jewish tradition when someone dies, loved ones leave a pebble on the gravestone to mark their love. The pebbles in the shoes are the nearest these people got to funerals.

We backtracked across Pest, heading for the Dohany Street Synagogue.

The second largest synagogue in the world (after the synagogue in NYC), Dohany is nestled in the Jewish quarter of the city. I was a bit surprised to round the corner and see a massive Moorish design, shaped like a church.

We paid to enter and arrived just in time for the English tour. It was quite short, and we stayed sitting in the pews because it was far too cold to be wandering around the gardens listening to a guide. The worship center of the synagogue wasn’t heated, but at least it was still warmer than being outside in the wind.


Built in 1854-59, the architects had never designed a synagogue before. Because of that, the alcoves and balconies and even the lecterns on the side are designed for a catholic cathedral. Well, the Jews just took it in stride. Today they use the lecterns for camera crews if they’re doing a big event.

Of the 825,000 Jews in Hungary prior to WWII and the Holocaust, and by the end only a quarter remained, mostly in Budapest.

By 1945 Budapest had walled off the Jewish quarter, making it into a ghetto. Precious little got in or out, including food or dead bodies. The synagogue had a small courtyard built, and in the ’30s, they had talked about making it into a garden with a fountain and flowers and benches, but the Holocaust destroyed those plans.


Almost 3,000 bodies are buried in mass graves in the courtyard today. Those that could be identified were later given headstones.

Around the corner is the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swede who, with the help of the Red Cross and a few other volunteers (like Carl Lutz), saved over 35,000 Hungarian Jews, sometimes even pulling them off trains headed for the concentration camps. Giorgio Perlasca posed as a Spanish diplomat and saved over 5,000 in just 45 days. Gennaro Verolino, a catholic bishop, saved over 30,000 by issuing false Vatican passports. Angelo Rotta was outspoken against Nazism and anti-Semeticism from the beginning and saved many Jews in Bulgaria, also. He saved around 15,000 Budapest Jews by issuing false papers of baptism and Vatican passports as well as sheltered Jews in safe houses. According to a Holocaust scholar, “of the hundred and fifty thousand Jews who had been in Budapest when the Germans arrived in March 1944, almost 120,000 survived to liberation – 69,000 from the Big Ghetto, 25,000 in the International Ghetto and a further 25,000 hiding out in Christian homes and religious institutes across the city.”


Behind the metal tree are four red marble pillars with the names of the “Righteous Among Nations” inscribed on them. Further back are more memorials to Jews that died. All the pebbles moved me to tears.


And I thought, “if I had lived then, would I have hidden Jews in my home?” It’s a little game I play with myself, imagining my reactions to historical events.

Obviously, the correct answer is “yes, gladly.” But then I imagined hiding them in closets, lying to soldiers, living every day with a death sentence over my head, and fear shot through me.

So I leaned in. The best way to play this game, I’ve learned, is to set it in a modern context. I’ve faced a lot of my hidden prejudices and biases this way. And I thought, what group in the United States is hard working, relatively integrated, but blamed for economic problems and ostracized as “the other” despite having a similar religious outlook? And the answer, at least for the first part of the 21st century, is Muslims, and perhaps Latinx.

And I asked myself, in the case that the government (or an occupying force) systematically rounds up Muslims or Latinx from my city and promises they’re just being sent to labor camps to keep us safe until the trouble is over, would I open my closet, my basement, my money to them?

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On our first full day in Budapest we went on a free walking tour to get a feel for everything.


We enjoyed the architecture and we walked from Pest across the chain bridge to Buda.


The Hungarians call the river Duna in their language, Magyar.


Overlooking the famous chain bridge and the river is hilly Buda. Atop Buda Castle Hill is the castle, St. Matthias church, and more. Perching at the forefront is the turul, a mythical Magyar/Hungarian bird of pray.

_mg_3405Modern-day Hungary was populated by Germanic and/or Celtic peoples. The Romans conquered and invaded, leaving behind ruins of bath houses. Attila the Hun swept through, all the way from Mongolia. Various Germanic and Slavic tribes conquered and intermingled afterward, and it wasn’t until the Magyars showed up from the Ural mountains around 830 that the land had is present-day dwellers. The Hungarians (called Magyar in their own language) are possibly Finno-Ugric, possibly Kazakh, possibly Turkic in origin. Whatever they are, it wasn’t Slav, Germanic, or Bulgar. That much we know.

Anyway, the Magyar traditional story is that the turul once swooped down and picked up their tribal leader’s sword and flew away with it. The Hungarians gave chase, all the way from Asia into Europe. The turul dropped the sword on the Hungarian plains, and that is why the Magyars decided to stay there.


This church, named after St. Matthias, was originally founded by St. King Stephen sometime around 1030. Destroyed by the Mongol/Tatar invasion of 1241, it was rebuilt several times over the next few hundred years. It was only named after King Matthias in the 19th century. Matthias was one of the last great Hungarian kings, ruling in the 14th century.


Near the church is a famous statue of King Stephen. Just behind the statue and the church is the Fishermen’s Bastion, so named because the fisherman guild probably defended this part of the city wall.


Almost directly opposite the Duna (or Danube) is the Hungarian parliament building. It is exactly the same height as St. Stephen’s Basilica, to show that neither church nor state controls the other, but that they live in harmony together. During the Soviet occupation they built a 4-meter star and put it atop the parliament spire, just to prove a point. It’s gone now, as soon as the Iron Curtain fell, it was taken off their building forever.



Our last stop of the day was Hospital in the Rock. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but we enjoyed the museum. Cave systems abound underneath the hills of Buda, and there’s an extensive system beneath Castle Hill. Although caves had been used in prehistoric and even medieval times, by modern times no one knew much about it. The caves were mapped in the 1930s, and an emergency hospital was prepared in the caves for WWII. Designed for civilians with a 60-person occupancy, by the Siege of Budapest  in December 1944 the hospital was grossly over-taxed with Hungarian and Nazi soldiers as well as civilians. The Arrow Cross, Hungary’s fascist, Nazi-collaborating government, continued to support the hospital until the Soviets took the city. The Soviets kept the hospital running, more or less, classifying it as Top Secret and adding a nuclear bunker (which probably wouldn’t have worked–they only stored enough supplies for 3 weeks of a nuclear fallout). On October 31, 1956, when student protests erupted into a full-blown Uprising. The hospital reopened, taking wounded revolutionaries and civilians alike. The USSR brought a hammer down on the revolution, killing as many as 30,000 people, even dragging dead bodies behind tanks in the streets to make a point.

It was a really interesting way to learn about Hungary’s modern history, and even though I hate mannequins (and the place was full of them), I had a good time tromping through the tunnels and looking at WWII medical equipment and Cold War-era machinery and communications. By then, the sun had set (Even though it was just 4 pm) so we bundled up in our coats and hats and decided to see the rest of Budapest the following day.

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Pearl of the Danube

We arrived in Budapest, Hungary in the afternoon and made it to our hostel on the Pest side of the city with little trouble. Although people have lived here for probably two thousand years, the modern city of Budapest has only been around since Obuda, Pest, and Buda were joined together to make one city in 1873 as the capital of Hungary.


Later that evening we strolled down to St. Stephen’s Basilica to see the Christmas Market. Wooden stalls and cabin clustered around the square, a small ice skating rink in the middle for children. Vendors sold everything from Hungarian sausage to scarves to trinkets for tourists. Everyone wore hats and scarves, sipping on glugg or apple cider. Christmas music played in the background, and we admired a nativity set on display on the steps of the church.


St. Stephen’s is named after the first king who united Hungary into one country. Although King Stephen (975ish-1038) was a good king, the first to embrace Christianity and spur Hungarians/Magyars toward a European culture (rather than Asian or Middle Eastern), he didn’t do anything miraculous. After his death, however, his right arm naturally mummified. Well, that was enough for the Catholic leadership, so they declared it a miracle and canonized him. Today the church has his hand. The rest of the arm was cut up and gifted/forcibly taken to other parts of the world.




After enjoying the Christmas spirit and a delicious cup of cider, we went on to Szechenyi Thermal Baths. Someone had told us that there’s nothing more Hungarian than sitting outside in a hot thermal both watching snow fall around you. Well, there wasn’t any snow, but we decided to check it out anyway. Szechenyi is one of the grandest, most beautiful baths in the city. Because of that, tourists flock, and therefore locals don’t visit. But all the locals recommend tourists visit, saying it’s worth the experience.


In the past, traditional baths had women and men segregated and people would bathe naked, like in most other bathing places. However, mixed is becoming more popular, especially for tourists, so swimsuits are required. The Lonely Planet guide calls it “like bathing in a wedding cake.”


It was dark and below freezing when I visited, and the steam from the hot water misted around everyone, making it difficult to see the person next to you at times. After a few days of hard travel (we walked 40 miles in 4 days in Russia–I kid you not), I just relaxed in the thermal waters.


Budapest sits on several thermal springs, and even the ancient Romans enjoyed the spot for the rejuvenating mineral waters. Finally, when I had enough, I showered and joined Jordan to return back to our hostel for the night.

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