“The past must be acknowledged…” Attila Jóseph
How difficult would it be to forgive heinous war crimes? How can you forgive your country for turning on its people out of the basic instinct to survive? How could those responsible live with themselves day after day?
The Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1867-1918 brought stability and growth to our beautiful country of Hungary. During this union, Hungary built the parliament, gorgeous apartments in gothic style, erected statues and monuments to reflect their power and wealth; to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of the formation of state. For Hungarians, it was a good time to be alive. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was a force to be reckoned with, the second largest country in Europe and were top producers in many industries. Hungary was prospering.
By November 1918, World War I ended for Austria-Hungary with complete military loss. With the collapse of the army, the Austro-Hungarian system weakened, and the winners of the war took the spoils. The ethnic groups of Kingdom of Hungary called for independent nation-states. In the Treaty of Trianon signed on June 4, 1920, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, more than half of its population. Eight million Hungarians were left in Hungary and three million Hungarians were stranded outside the new borders where even today they speak Hungarian and identify themselves as Hungarian.
There are times in Hungary’s history when I wonder why Hungarians were not stronger, instead they were submissive against the powers that conquered, some teaming up taking advantage of the situation. Why did we not fight to stay together, to build a unified country, and to stay Hungary? Well there were many heroes, but sadly many were killed and placed in unmarked graves to never be heard from again.
WWII was next. It was the great depression and Hungary relied on trade with Italy and Germany to pull itself out. We were again on the wrong side of this war.
In an attempt from our leader to go against Hitler’s regime, Hungary engaged in armistice negotiations with the United States and the United Kingdom. Milkós Horthy failed after the Germans kidnapped his son and revoked the armistice, his power was stripped and Hungary continued under Nazi control.
In retaliation, Hitler drafted our teenage boys, as young as 16, to fight the front lines, and Hungary took massive casualties during these years, as most of our boys were slaughtered like expenditures. Hungary’s downward spiral had begun, the Magyar spirit became desperate under German control.
Hungary then decided to retaliate against the deportation and murder of millions of Jews, and managed to buy them time (a few years actually) before the Jewish citizens was sent to their deaths. Many Hungarian Jewry fled, hid and escaped. Children were sent away to distant relatives in the countryside to be raised as their own. No amount of paperwork could stop the Hungarian army from eventually following Nazi orders and gathered up the Jews from Hungary for the concentration camps. They were ordered to comply or meet their own deaths. And so it began. With their green light, the evil Arrow Cross launched a reign of terror against the Jews of Budapest. Thousands were tortured, raped and murdered during the last months of WWII, and their property looted or destroyed.
Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands of Budapest Jews using Swedish protective passports and they were secretly brought out of the country. Hungary thought that they would somehow manage to bypass the exportation of their Jewish community. You see, our Jews were Hungarian first, and their religion was of the Jewish faith. After the war, Zionism separated the two, and Jews became Jewish first, ripping culture and their total identity apart. Hitler did this, and ever since this has further distanced Jews from the rest of Hungarian culture and the world.
Hungarians were caught in a crossfire between Germany and Russia. Hungarian leaders on October 1944, signed another armistice with Russia giving the Russians complete control of Hungary and were declared a communist state. We were thrown from the frying pan into the fire, and when the Germans finally left Hungary at the end of WWII the Russians rolled in on their tanks to wreak more havoc on the Hungarian people.
The ethnic cleansing continued, but the next victims were not just from the Jewish community, but our German-Hungarians were deported with little more than the shirts on their backs, leaving all their riches, homes and cattle behind for the Russian regime.
Alfonz’s uncle lives in Germany now, and he left at this time but stayed in touch with our family. His wife is Hungarian and they managed to carve out a nice little life for themselves near the Neckar River. The Hungarian government took their home and land for themselves when private ownership was being abolished.
My grandmother told me stories of the Russian soldiers getting off the train. A young boy was in the wrong place at the wrong time and shot down in the street in front of our family home. This was a small town, mostly farmers; they had nothing much to give. The women were raped, they took their food, and the soldiers kept going in this fashion relishing their victory on their way to Budapest our capital.
My Grandmother’s both are of German descent who married Hungarian men. They were not deported as they took their husband’s names. They stopped using German, and slowly forgot the language all together. My 94 -year-old Grandmother to this day, has blocked out most of her German memories, probably in fear of being caught. Today even her Hungarian hs faded and she mostly speaks in English after living there for nearly 60 years. With such fear-based upbringings, there is no wonder she tried to forget. My grandmother does not talk about her life, it makes her too sad.
During 1944-1989 Hungary remained the most Westernized State of the terrorist dictatorship. They got coffee, meat and sugar when others got none, although there were times of food coupons, my family was very lucky. Hungarians got it much better than other communist controlled countries, being the closest to the west. However our forefathers still had to endure the tortures of ÁVO and after them ÁVH, the protectors of the power. The Hungarian communists forced fellow Hungarians into snitches, searching for uprisings against the ruling party. They killed at will trying to keep order.
The Russians decided that because 80% of the Hungarian population were Roman Catholics that they needed to control the church, as they were giving Hungarians faith and hope. Signed confessions after brutal days of torture ended in hangings and the ÁVO rounded up thousands of religious leaders (nuns, priest, bishops and cardinals) and replaced them with brainwashed puppets of the communist regime. The regime falsified documented and witness reports in order to suppress and fear the citizens into submission. Many ended up under the 60 Andrássy Street building, now known as the House of Terror, to be tortured, locked up and the key thrown away or killed slowly at the hands of masochists. The most horrific crimes took place in this building, mostly at the hands of fellow Hungarians.
Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian were sent off to work camps as punishments for crimes they did not commit. You were guilty until proven innocent. These camps were set up not for productivity but to torture the Hungarians at the hands of Russian soldiers. Little food or clothing, and horrible conditions were experienced, and most did not make it out alive.
Alfonz’s grandfather spend 4 years in a Siberian War Camp and he never mentally fully recovered. Siberia was known as the worst of the worst of all the camps combined, due to the harsh weather conditions and the lack of food and protection from the elements.
He never talked about his prison sentence and after he returned to Hungary he changed his name from Heil to Hamori. The Russian soldiers had a quota of Germans to gather up for the camps, if that wasn’t bad enough, when they ran out of actual Germans they started taking anyone with a German sounding last name, and then they started taking anyone even children as young as 16; all to make their numbers for the Russian leaders.
Next came the 1956 revolution against the Soviet communists that suppressed my people’s freedoms and broke my country’s soul, if there was any left after this point in history. Austria managed to get out from under communist control, but the falsely elected leaders of Hungary signed on to continue under communist rule. Then the people revolted.
Our brave citizens, mostly students and later everyone who felt a strong necessity to try to get out from under the communist thumb, fought. It came at a very large price and eventually failed. 2500 citizens died, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. It takes generations to recover such a blow, and the constant worry of execution. How does a person recover from witnessing neighbours killed next to you in the street? Some people just never came home and the families never knew exactly what happened to them. It was a sad time in Hungary’s history.
My family was lucky to leave on the last train to Austria in 1956. My grandfather was the train master in his town, and along with another family they secretly left their country with a few bags each. The citizens feared for their lives, for no reason other than the Russians were brutal, had no sense of justice just inflicted pain. Nagypapa was a gentlemen who loved his country, but feared he too would be killed, and his responsibility was to keep my Nagymama, my uncle (11) and my father (9) safe. They were the same age as my children are now, which really puts things into perspective for me. I know I would do anything to protect my children, and I know I would have left such an unstable country to try to find a better life. Austria helped the refugees safely reach the Promised Land (for some that meant the UK, America, Australia, South America or in our case Canada).
My grandparents longed to return to Hungary, and from a distance they watched more Hungarians go to the camps, locked up for no reason and people constantly feared the ÁVO and later the ÁVH. We heard stories of Hungary reaching a low economically and spiritually; with criminals running the country who saturated the system on all levels. The Russians slowly corrupted the entire country, turning Hungarians against each other. Many were taken to 60 Andràssy to be interrogated. I don’t know anyone that didn’t fear them, and they often even turned on themselves, making them an unstable and all powerful suppressor.
Falsified elections, terrorizing the nation, TV propaganda , artificial courtcases; all followed that continued to demoralize Hungary.
After many years my grandparents finally felt it would be safe to visit Hungary. I remember my Grandfather had some of our money for my mother’s mother who lived in Budapest we sent home to help with the bills. When the plane landed guards took him into an interrogation room. A family friend had visited us from Hungary on a two week vacation. This man and his family was caught at the border as well on a random check, and the man was interrogated. We never got the whole story, but we think he made up a story about my Grandfather being a war criminal to save his own skin. When my grandfather reached the border, he was interrogated for hours, and stripped of all his money. He was not only innocent but quickly the guards could see, he is the kindest, sweetest man and they sent him home. When he returned, he was visibly heart-broken and seemed to age 10 years. He was an innocent man, a good man to his core and whenever he tried to talk about his beloved Hungary, the tears would well up in his eyes.
After 35 years of waiting, communism was finally eradicated from our Hungary in 1989. But, by then, the question became; how can you move back to Hungary from all, we had to work hard in our adopted countries to establish a new life, raising our children as members of our host country? Could you then uproot your own children, and grandchildren, as you had to endure because you want to go back? It was a catch 22.
My grandfather remained homesick until the day he died. I return to Budapest Hungary to visit the Terror Museum in Budapest Hungary and relive the travesties my Grandfather lived through. It is with greater understanding and humble thankfulness I write this post.
To my Nagypapa. You were such a brave man, honest, and good. I hope to oneday return to your beloved Budapest as you may have wanted, when it is strong and prosperous once again. In my lifetime, I foresee a healthy, beautiful Hungary like the one you loved. I carry your love with me through my own life with honour.
“The House of Terror” is a museum now, but it was witness to two shameful and tragic periods in Hungary’s 20th century history. It was truly a house of terror.
In 1944, during the gruesome domination of the Hungarian army Arrow Cross Party, the building, known as the “House of Loyalty”, was the party headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis. The between 1945 and 1956, the notorious communist terror organizations, the ÁVO and its successor, the ÁVH, took up residence here. 60 Andrássy Boulevard has become the house of terror and dread.
This museum commemorates the victims of terror, but it is also a memento, reminding us of the dreadful acts of terrorist dictatorship.