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.