I’ve always been fascinated by the history of Hungary, after studying the 1956 revolution at school, many moons ago.
I was very excited, then, to actually be in Budapest and have the opportunity to see round the House of Terror – a step-by-step journey through Hungary’s history of Soviet occupation and ethnic cleansing. Sure, it doesn’t sound like your typical tourist’s idea of beer-soaked ‘fun’, but I’ve been looking forward to this for ages!
It gave me much the same feeling as the Anne Frank house: a sense of wonder as I walked around and felt history come to life, with a real chill as I realised just how horrendous this stuff actually was. The museum is really well designed – you start off up on the second floor, and walk through the exhibitions (each room with a helpful background leaflet in English to make up for the fact that everything else is in Hungarian), moving down until eventually you’re in the basement, which is full of prison cells and torture chambers.
The whole way, you’re accompanied by music that is at times soulful (I had to choke back tears in one room, where a child’s voice was reading out names of victims to a very moving soundtrack) and at others very dramatic and militant. It actually makes you feel quite tense and nervous, especially when you’re surrounded by all those Nazi uniforms and walking through Soviet offices and the like. I was a little thrown by the presence of numerous security guards, there to make sure nobody breaks the “no photos” rule. I’m sure that their uniform is a standard Hungarian security uniform, but the mind plays tricks on you when you’re being influenced by powerful images and emotive music, not to mention reading about terrible crimes against humanity by men in uniforms quite similar to the ones on the people prowling stealthily all around you.
By the time I got down to the basement, I was decidedly spooked. With a sick feeling in my stomach, I peered into prison cell after prison cell, including torture chambers (one was ankle deep in water, so that you’d always be cold and wet; another’s ceiling was about 4′ from the ground, so you could never stand up) and a padded cell, which was my first (but not necessarily my last) time in one of those. I sneaked some photos, jumping nervously every time I thought I saw a security guard, understandably frightened about what he might do to me, given our surroundings.
Waiting for a guard to disappear so that I could get a picture of the padded cell, I crept cautiously inside the warden’s office, which looked like nothing had been touched since it was in use. Old register books, a typewriter, an old wireless… turning round, I saw lockers, and a couple of old uniform jackets hanging beside them. It really did feel like the place was still being used, and that someone could come and catch me at any moment. Imagine my utter horror, therefore, when something in the dark corner above one of the lockers suddenly came loose of its own accord, and fell with a loud clank on to the top of the locker. The metallic sound echoed monstrously around the musty room, and I was convinced I’d been shot or something.
I screamed. I really did. I screamed a really girly scream and backed away, bruised my leg on the desk, turned to flee, and ran straight into Stalin/a moustached security guard who’d come to see who was wrecking the museum. I was about to declare my innocence when I realised he was biting his lip hard and shaking with mirth. Well, really. Drawing my shoulders back, I fixed him with a haughty gaze and stalked past him.
I say stalked… actually, my knees trembled like mad for the rest of my journey around the museum.
House of Terror: full points for aptness of name.