From the House of Terror

This report from the Terror Háza (or House of Terror) concludes my Budapest diary. Not that Hungary is quite done with me yet, considering that this week’s drama on BBC Radio 3 is The Radetzky March, an adaptation of the 1932 novel, which chronicles the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as a portrait of its author, Joseph Roth, an Austrian Jew. Roth died in 1939, some five years before the Nazis took over Hungary (or Nazi Hungary allied itself with Germany), resulting in the deportation and death of thousands of Jews in the concentration camp in Auschwitz. My visit to the House of Terror, in which these and other stories from Hungary’s none-too-distant past are documented, was one of the most fascinating and disturbing history lessons I have ever received.

Once called the House of Loyalty, the building was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi Party. In its basement, members of the Arrow Cross interrogated, tortured and silenced hundreds, smothering the voices of the opposition. Like Hungary itself, the premises were soon taken over by the Communists, who, beginning in 1945, continued to use them for such purposes until 1956, the year of the brutally crushed revolution.

The House of Terror is a museum now, an exhibition space at once horrific and beautiful. In its corridors of former power, the art of intimidation survives as art installations. The awful turns awesome, the oppressive impressive. David Lynch might have served as its interior decorator. It is glamorous, you might say. How perverse it was to admire what decency compels us to abhor. The house, it seemed, was designed to corrupt.

It was only when I descended into the cellar, rooms into which visitors are lowered with cruel deliberation on a black and slow-moving elevator, that the oohs and ahhs were choked right out of me. Never before have I experienced such an approach to what must be never again, at least not on this heart-shrinking and spirit sinking scale. This place of dread and despair does not simply document the uses of awe—it provokes and regenerates it.

My throat muscles tightened, my eyes filled with tears, as I solemnly made my way through this desolate underground maze of “detention cells”, “wet cells,” of “foxholes” and “treatment rooms,” of “guard rooms” and “condemned cells”—and the “place of execution.”

“There were no executions” in Terror Háza, the guidebook took pains to inform me, “‘only’ fatal bashings and suicides.” Echoing the distinctions of the extinguishers at work here, the clear and cruel terminology of extermination still reverberates in this orderly house of silencing, a house in which there was no room for grace . . .

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