House of Terror holds up the past as a mirror to the present

Its name sounds like a cheesy haunted house from a 1960s midway.

It’s not featured prominently in most tourist guides, if it appears at all.

But the House of Terror offers what might be the most important and emotionally moving couple of hours any tourist spends in the city of Budapest.

Beautiful, friendly and fascinating, Hungary’s capital has been one of the world’s most important cities since the beginning of humanity. 

Victims or perpetrators?

Like many European cities, its architecture outlived whatever political dynasties created it and its culture is an amalgam of the past.

But Budapest also strikes me as a city still rubbing its wrists from chains that bound it for the better part of my lifetime. 

There was the brief but deadly pillaging of the nazis. Then there was the long communist oppression, interrupted by the brief flowering of the Uprising in 1956 and ending with Soviet withdrawal in the 1990s.

Freedom remains fragile. Its democracy has become so eroded that Hungary was rated only “partly free” in a think-tank report this year.

For a westerner such as me, whose country’s battles against 20th century tyrannies were fought on foreign soil, it’s hard to share the perspective of those who persevered for most of their lives under repressive regimes, or even those who were born into the uncertain freedom of the past two decades.

But it’s almost as impossible to avoid coming face to face with their sad reality.

During a recent visit I stayed in the seventh district, the “ruin” district, of Budapest. It was the Jewish section before tens of thousands of Jews were deported and most slaughtered during the war. Then Roma were forcibly relocated there in the 60s to 80s to occupy the abandoned houses. Once a ghetto . . .

Today it’s a trendy area of “ruin pubs” — bars that look like they were set up by squatters — and quaint restaurants and bakeries and the like.

Stroll up the river for a kilometre or so and you come across the sculpture Shoes on the Danube Bank, 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes memorializing ghetto dwellers who were marched to that bank by the fascist Arrow Cross militia, ordered to remove their shoes and then shot so their bodies fell into the river. 

Then make your way to 60 Andrussy Street, which was Arrow Cross Party headquarters. That far right regime, German puppets, held power for just six months toward the end of the Second World War but managed to murder upwards of 10,000 Jews and Roma and deport 80,000 more to concentration camps in Austria.

A lot of Arrow Cross’s interrogation, torture and killing took place in that building and its basement cells.

That suited the building’s next tenants, the AVH, just fine. They were Hungary’s secret police, a branch of Russia’s KGB. 

Secret arrests, torture, secret trials, show trials, purges, concentration camps — all were run from Andrussy Street for another decade. The AVH was reined in but Soviet satellite status persisted until the 1990s.

In 2002, the House of Terror moved in. And 60 Andrussy Street suits it just fine as well.

Critics find the museum a bit disorganized. I’d call it impressionistic.

The impression begins with the T54 Soviet battle tank in the foyer. 

It builds with hundreds and hundreds of mugshots of victims splayed across the exterior and interior walls, with the information sheets and projections of facts and numbers that seem impossibly high, the thousands and tens of thousands tortured, tried on trumped-up charges, sent to work prisons or otherwise “disappeared.”

In video after video after video, older men and women who survived talk dispassionately about being hunted down or betrayed or slaving in gulags or having their farms confiscated or making an untimely joke that cost them a lifetime.

We forgive, they say, but we don’t forget.

And then there is the room full of mugshots of the perpetrators, those who killed or tortured or betrayed or ordered — people who don’t look any different than those they have victimized no matter how much we want them to.

Overcome with the immensity of this inhumanity, we take a slow elevator ride down to the cells where the bodies were tortured and the wills were broken.

We’re free to leave whenever we want.

Forgiving the unforgivable is understandable. How else does one resume any semblance of a normal life after the terror ends?

Forgetting is both impossible and unthinkable.

House of Terror prompts many to recognize how our society is flirting with a world in which 60 Andrussy Streets are no longer museums. In our time, power justifies the means, truth is whatever you want to be true, states vilify and persecute groups for invented or exaggerated outrages, few of us agree to disagree.

And yes, though it never appeared in the House of Terror, the word “Trump” was on the lips of many saddened souls as they left.

I’m missing the point of high heels

(A version of this post appeared as a column in The Sault Star)

The teetering question one recent Saturday was if a bunch of men could Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.

Suffering Sault Ste. Marie males donned two-inch red high heels and strutted or stumbled to raise funds for Women in Crisis (Algoma) Inc., to combat violence against women and children.

I did not take part. I need heavy-duty orthotics just to walk down a supermarket aisle. But reading about the event I couldn’t help wonder this:

Why would anyone — male, female or the gender of one’s choice — want to walk even a few paces in those instruments of tootsie torture?

Consider that 1.6 kilometres (a mile) is not a taxing distance; according to my Fitbit I tread nine or 10 Ks in an average day.

Yet the Walk a Mile site promised “a variety of foot care items” at a first aid station and suggested wearing band-aids to prevent blisters. Safer to play goalie without a cup, methinks. Or take up foot-binding.

Consequences of wearing heels can include lumbar spine flattening, posterior displacement of the head, spasm-producing spinal nerve conditions, bunions, tendonitis, heel spurs, stress fractures and, for relief, pulsing, constrictive, numbing pain. 

Sounds like giving birth through your arches.

So I think we can safely assume that physical pleasure has nothing to do with strutting heels.

Even women who wear heels daily tend to have a pair of flats in their locker, their desk drawer or their humongous purse to change into with groans of relief audible in the next building. 

Flats are part of the uniform of maids of honour and bridesmaids at weddings, to be donned as soon as the half-day of formal photographs is over.

Now, I would not dream — not nightmare — of telling a woman what to wear on her feet, even though dictating what women do with their bodies seems to be all the rage these days.

I know a few women with a cornucopia of high heels spilling from their closets; these women might chew up a scoffing male and spit out his pathetic bones.

But why wear them? It’s OK to ask, isn’t it.

There might be two reasons, not necessarily unrelated: femininity and power.

Scientists, apparently to satisfy my curiosity, conducted this experiment:

They attached glow-in-the-dark dots on women in both heels and flats, filmed them walking, then showed the images of just those moving dots to both men and women, asking them the gender of the walker.

Every single image identified as male was a woman wearing flats. Both male and female viewers found the walkers wearing heels unmistakably feminine.

High heels exaggerate how women walk, reducing the stride, increasing the rotation and tilt of the hips. As the Walk a Mile web page advises, put your shoulders back, tuck in your stomach, stick out your chest and heel-toe-heel-toe.

Other scientists, bless them, had women drop a glove. A man retrieved it 60% of the time, but that rose to 95% if the woman was wearing heels.

Then they watched women in bars (I guess that makes you a scientist, buddy). Women wearing heels were approached twice as fast as the same women in flats.

As for power, well, heels are the foundation of the power suit for female lawyers, professionals, executives.

They reason it doesn’t hurt to cushion the blow of bossing men around by displaying a feminine walk. And it doesn’t hurt to be four inches taller, because the business and professional worlds tend to give bigger salaries and better jobs to tall people. Scientists have studied that to death as well.

To put a point on it, I’m told spiked heels are the footwear of choice of dominatrixes.

So the answer to why women wear high heels might be “beats me.”

But men, if a woman should dangle a high heel from her stockinged foot and invite you to drink alcohol from it, as was fashionable a century ago and persists in frat houses today, tell her to forget it.

You might choke on a band-aid.

Slithering along the trails

(A version of this little ramble appears in May 11 Sault Star)

My first spring hike on a bush trail was no walk in the park.

Remnants of snowshoe trails might cover a bear trap for all you know

Some stretches still had remnants of once-packed-down snow, because we snowshoe on those trails in winter.

Rather than encounter whatever slippery surprises those drifts might hide, I straddled or skirted them, which made me look like a rickety version of my grandkids playing floor lava.

It’s harder to find the trail in spring, too.

In winter, even after a snowfall, you just follow the indentation made by those who shoed before you and hope they didn’t take a wrong turn over a cliff, like lemmings in long-johns.

But there are wrong turns to be taken when the snow melts. And some of the blazes on our sparsely marked trail have lost their youthful glow.

I missed one turn and had to backtrack when I realized that the maples, birches, oaks, pines and hemlocks through which I trekked were definitely not the correct maples, birches, oaks, pines and hemlocks.

It’s there, right before your eyes. How could you miss it?

I hadn’t noticed a faded yellow tape flapping in the breeze among strands of tattered bark on a paper birch that were also flapping in the breeze. How could I have been so blind.

Then there was the snake that I almost stepped on.

It was a garter, about two feet long. Possibly having just emerged from its hibernacula, it was as lazy as most of us are first thing in the morning.

That snake might have been randy as well, since in spring male garters hit the ground sniffing, looking for a slithery young thing to court and spark.

Even if I knew what signs of carnality to look for, I wouldn’t have gotten close enough to find out, because I’m considerably less than fond of snakes.

In my youth, while canoe-tripping through massasauga rattler country, I stepped barefoot onto a fairly large snake. (We had been swimming; even as a goofy teen I didn’t canoe-trip barefoot.)

Harmless, right? Tell that to Eve

Thankfully, it was not a massasauga and did no rattling. Parts of my anatomy rattled quite loudly, however.

This time I was booted, but the thought of treading on this garter had me imagining it slithering up my body and going straight for the adam’s apple. Even a serpent might talk itself into tasting some forbidden fruit.

I did what anyone would do: I poked it with a stick.

Don’t have a hissy fit, reptile-lovers. I didn’t club it to death. On the contrary, I was curious if someone or something or the Grim Reaper had beaten me to it.

The poked snake sidled lethargically, perhaps unwilling to expend much energy on anything less than a female snake. So I gave it a wide berth.

Speaking of birth, throughout history snakes have been symbols of fertility.

Fertility is about the last thing a man of my age would hope for, having discovered that grandchildren require far less maintenance than children. Old people call that diminished responsibility.

But snakes are also considered symbols of creative rebirth and transformation.

Some cultures believe snakes appear in your life if you are entering a highly creative phase and need to make improvements.

Good news for a scribbler such as myself, you say?

Sure, a personal creative renaissance sounds appealing. Some of you might think it’s long overdue.

But that sort of reboot would require me to get off my asp and put in a lot of time. Time I’d rather spend in my hiking boots.

So hiss off, snake.