Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Budapest—the Dark Years

By Chuck
April 13, 2010

Today we walked—and walked—down memory lane: A passage of dark memories. We decided it didn’t make sense to go on a walking tour in persistent rain; we re-focused and planned on seeing the Terror Museum and the Hospital in the Rock Museum. Both spanned the eras between WWII and the Soviet occupation, and beyond.

We are great believers in the efficacy of day- and multi-day transportation passes. We got two 24 hour tickets each, yesterday, intended to cover from noon to noon Monday-Tuesday and Tuesday-Wednesday. These, in Hungary, are good on any public transportation system in the metropolitan area: Train, Metro, Tram and Bus. We used them all. This provided our self-guided overview of the city. The Metro is deep down in the bowels of the city and had the steepest escalator we've ever been on.

Metro escalator

We had originally planned to stay an additional day; but, when we thought about our four day Vignette pass—purchasable only at the border—we realized that we had to leave the country by midnight Wednesday—or figure out how to buy another Vignette. This was not a great sacrifice, as the weather here was steadily drizzling and we were outside much of the time, with reduced visibility—due to the overcast weather and, in my case, the auditory and visual limitations imposed by my hood: I don’t like hats and appreciate the convenience of waterproofing my head with a flip of my wrists to put the hood in place.

Today, we walked to the end of the road leading to the campground, used the pedestrian underpass to take us to the HEV train line across the street, transferred at the end of the line to the Red #2 Metro, transferred to the Yellow #1 line at Deák tér, and then stopped at Vörösmarty to walk to The House of Terror. Hungarian Stalinists referred to it as the “House of Loyalty.” What’s in a name, eh?

In 1944-45 the Hungarian Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party, had their headquarters, here; this was also where they conducted their tortures. Once Hungary was “liberated” by the Russians, Communists took over the building and used it in similar ways, through their AVO and AVH terror organizations. The museum honors the victims of both reigns of terror as it reminds us of the dangers of totalitarian dictatorships.

In about 1976, I met a Hungarian refugee from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He claimed that the revolution was predicated upon the hope of US support, which they believed had been promised. This never materialized. A guide on another tour, today, suggested that this was because the Suez Canal crisis—Egypt nationalized the canal—happened at about the same time and was more important [economically and militarily?] than any considerations regarding Hungary.

Hungary has had an unfortunate history. For about 600 years, it only had a brief respite of rule by a Hungarian—Mátyás Corvinus, the quintessential Renaissance king, reigned in the late 15th century. It was, for a time, a major part of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire. WWI finished that and Hungary (an ally of Germany and Austria) became independent, but small; in the Treaty of Trianon, it was deprived of two-thirds of its territory and half of its population. Then Germany invaded and the Hungarian Nazis controlled it until the Russians came. The Soviet era did not end here until 1989—Hungary was the first Soviet satellite to open its borders to the West.

This place really had an impact on me. There were two videos in particular—one showing Hitler speaking to the usual huge crowd. This time though, it showed women crying and reaching out in adulation and babies being rushed up to him to kiss. I know that people idolized this man but to actually see it was heart stopping. Next, I watched a video of a group of women who had been in a labor camp talking to their former guard. The guard acted as though they were meeting as friends. The women described to her their terror of her and the power she had over them. The woman looked stunned.

The Terror Museum is quite enlightening. I hope all high school kids see it as a field trip and learning experience. Apparently, it is mostly visited by Hungarians. I am constantly reminded of my good fortune in my life compared to so many people in Eastern Europe.

Reversing our steps to Deák tér, we lunched at Café Reszletezo: Hungarian stew, mashed potatoes and cappuccinos. It was delicious.

Next, we began a search for the #16 bus to the Hospital in the Rock. Walking around the area with no success at all, we rushed back to the TI (Tourist Information Center) near the restaurant and found we needed to go one more block, across from the Meridian Hotel—I only wish Rick Steves had thought to include that information in his book. We got there just as the bus pulled out! But, another one came along, shortly, and we were off to Castle Hill and our ultimate destination.

The Buda and Pest areas, geologically speaking, are formed of two different rock layers. These left open areas between them which are caves under the ground. It was realized that there were so many that they could be linked by simply drilling through the solid areas separating them. This is how the underground hospital was created. It was used as a hospital during WWII and during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It became a nuclear bomb shelter for a time; there were a number of secret programs taking place in the facility during this time. The oil to supply the fuel for the underground generators was supplied by fake water trucks that pretended to water flowers but actually piped oil to the tanks. The generators were part of a system that purified the air through a series of filters designed to protect the facility and its secret programs in case of chemical, biological or nuclear attack.

The place still has tons of old medical supplies and equipment—many with expiration dates long past; there are more stored gas masks—from Russia, Germany and Hungary—than I would care to count in a lifetime. Much of the equipment is claimed to be still serviceable, but never used—or used only once in several instances. Morpheus, a dated device for anesthesiologists, was used in the film, Evita, which was filmed in Hungary, depicting some medical technology of the 50’s.

Budapest is over 1,000 years old, celebrating its millennial in 1986. Therein lies a story: A commission was charged to determine the birth date of the cities. [Budapest is historically a conglomeration of three cities: Buda and Pest—split by the Danube—and Óbuda, the oldest—Celtic and Roman—part.] The commission determined that the date was 985. But, this would not provide enough time to prepare for the elaborate celebrations envisioned. So, the commission revised its date to 986, in order to allow adequate preparation time. Many of the buildings seen, today, are renovations from the 1896 millennial—or even more recent. For example, the current Fishermen’s Bastion, though located just above the historical fish market, is a creation for the celebration.

Fishermen's Bastion

Buda view of Danube

Matthias Church

Stephanus Rex, 977-1038

Parliament Building on Pest side

Coming home, we stopped at the local SPAR market and spent the last of our money on groceries—we only have spare change left now. Throughout our stay in Hungary, we have used the calculator to advise us how much our zillion forints amounts to in euros; but, this time we used it to make sure we did not exceed our remaining 5,500 forints.

Tomorrow we leave for Poland, crossing Slovakia on the way. It will be at least six driving hours. Fingers crossed.

Communism is inequality, but not as property is. Property is exploitation of the weak by the strong. Communism is exploitation of the strong by the weak. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon


Karin said...

Hi! Thanks for the lovely trip through Budapest. I guess you gave the "Turkish" baths a miss? I was hoping you had gone and could tell us that they were "awful"! So Michael would not feel so bad we did not get to take a bath! Ha, ha. A RED FLAG went up when you mentioned the Museums being closed on Mondays, they are also closed in Prague on Mondays. So guess you can use that day as Laundry Day! I hope the weather gets better....loved the pictures....the Rock Hospital sounded like a great place to visit. Give the Communism Museum a miss in Prague.

Karin on Paros

Chuck and Claire said...

Thanks for the heads up about Mondays. Our problem is remembering what day it is!