Terror Háza: a name that no longer holds secrets and translates succinctly to English.
This corner building on historic Andrássy út was much more chilling than anything my mind could conjure up, but it wouldn’t come to full realization until I had reached the end of the tour in the dank, dark basement.
There are many sites around the world where the spirit of past immense suffering is felt. I have written about several of these, including Auschwitz, Terezin and Hỏa Lò Prison. These historical places exude feelings of sadness and death. This place, in particular, is different – it reeks of evil.
In Budapest – not far from the Hungarian Parliament building, opera house and St. Stephen’s Basilica – lies the House of Terror Museum. Terror Háza boasts an unassuming grey exterior but holds horrors that most in the free world are lucky to have never encountered. The metal overhang on the top of the building projects a shadow TERROR on the building when the sun is out. We were there on a gray and gloomy day. The weather matched the atmosphere of the building.
I learned about the site while taking the hop on, hop off bus through the city on our first day in Budapest. My family was a bit overwhelmed with the number of sites as the tour guide spoke and the bus made multiple stops. It seemed that every block had numerous places to visit. We had walked around the parliament building, seen the Hungarian State Opera House, visited Millenniumi emlékmű (Heroes Square), Dohány Street Synagogue (the Great Synagogue) and Széchenyi Thermal Bath. Although Terror Háza Museum was not an official stop on the route, it was within walking distance of the other sites and knew it wouldn’t take long to get there on foot.
We were told Terror Háza was a historical site, where Nazi and Communist officials kept and tortured prisoners during the Nazi and Soviet occupations of the city. That’s all it took to pique my interest. Count me in.
Entering the museum, you’re greeted on the ground floor by a WWII era Soviet tank and photos of prisoners who were interrogated and subjected to torture within the building. There is not much else on this floor, other than the sales counter for tickets and brochures (there is not much selection in English.)
Most of the exhibits in the museum are symbolic in nature. They portray the suffering Hungarians endured under the Nazi occupation by the Arrow Cross Party and by the Communist Soviets once the war ended. The symbolism is emblazoned on the metal overhang of the building with arrow cross and communist star cutouts.
The museum is comprised of three floors and the cellar. The self-guided tour starts at the top and works its way down. The start of the self-tour begins with rooms unlovingly devoted to the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian fascist organization responsible for many atrocities during WWII (another site nearby memorializes the spot where Hungarian Jews were forced into the Danube River by party members.) Uniforms of the Arrow Cross Party are on display with full insignia in the Arrow Cross exhibition hall on this floor.
Moving from room to room, a transition slowly takes place in the museum; one from fascism to one of communism. The ‘Changing Clothes’ room depicts the transfer of power from the national socialists to the communist political police. Uniforms of two very evil regimes are displayed as two sides of the same coin – a very accurate description of the two extremes. Behind the uniforms is a set of lockers, characterizing the transfer of authoritarian government rule.
Other rooms on this floor include The Soviet Advisors room. This room contains art and memorabilia from the era of the 1940’s and 1950’s when advisors were sent from the U.S.S.R. to oversee the work of Hungarian political elites and police. Other rooms symbolically portray resistance movements, political prisoners sent to the gulags and the Hungarian people who were stripped of their culture and traditions.
On the second floor, there are relics of the Cold War. A black 1950’s era car, like many used to kidnap political enemies of the ruling communists. There’s a room with the pictures of the leaders of the communist police. The ‘Reflective Room’ displays some of the torture devices used on political prisoners.
Two rooms on the second floor contain propaganda posters from the time period of communist rule. In one of these rooms, the walls are covered with propaganda posters that were meant to give the appearance that Hungary under communism was a happy, egalitarian society. Another room contains items that represent economic “treasures” taken from the Hungarians under an economic agreement between the Hungarian Communists and the Soviet Union. These mining resources include silver, aluminum, titanium and uranium ore.
From the second floor, visitors take a very slow elevator to the cellar. A video plays on a monitor as the elevator creeps to the bottom. The star of the video describes the torture techniques used on political prisoners once housed there.
The windows in the basement are blocked out. Individual cells show where prisoners spent their days and nights, often tortured in the process. Hot irons and filaments sit on a table that was likely used by many of the torturers whose photographs hang on the upper floors.
Many of these prison cells give off vibes of torture and death which everyone in our small group felt. No, this isn’t a place that features B movie horror films, nor is a haunted house that is only open in October. This is a place where, sadly, political nightmares came true for many Hungarians.