A security guard nodded to me as I approached the House of Terror. The doors opened automatically and I stepped into a hall. Sombre music sent a thrill through me – in the few moments I was standing there, the three low notes seemed to permeate my skin. As I write this on the way to Bucharest, I can still hear the melody in the train’s rumbling.
The House of Terror is at 60 Andrassy Boulevard (a UNESCO listed street which leads from downtown Budapest to the Heroes’ Square), in the building that housed the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis in 1944 and the communist terror organisations, the ÁVO and ÁVH between 1945 and 1956. During the communist occupation, the organisation outgrew the building and stretched over the entire block. The cells beneath the buildings were connected in a labyrinth of prison cells.
The museum started on the second floor and finished in the basement, each level forming a square around a model of a tank and three floors of black and white pictures of the communist and Nazi occupations’ victims. Several rooms followed this theme – black walls with silver text, black and white television screens, dim lighting and chilling music. There was a film showing the spread of German power across Central and Eastern Europe, and then the spread of the Soviet regime as the ominous music played – it was almost delicious, how well they fit together.
I loved the darkness – it drew me in with morbid fascination and I felt like I was holding my breath as I waited for what came next . . . and then I entered a room that was well-lit with a hardwood floor. I felt cheated – this was the House of Terror! What happened to all of my doom and gloom?!
Although it’s a great museum, and there were several more murky rooms ahead of me, I felt like the bright rooms broke the atmosphere, making it a less powerful experience.
Finishing in the basement was incredible, though. Concrete tunnels and prison cells have been accurately reconstructed below the building. Towards the end of the museum there were some video interviews with former prisoners. Two of them stayed with me: one was an old woman crying about why this had to happen to her, and saying that she had been living in fear ever since. The second was of a man who was tied up for two hours a day during his imprisonment next to some sort of heater/furnace. He said that he asked the guard to move him because his hand was burning, but the guard just laughed. Then (on the video) he uncrossed his fingers and I gasped – there were two fingers missing from his left hand.
The second last room is the Hall of Tears, which is hauntingly beautiful. Tall and slender black crosses stand in a dark room, each one with a light shining where the bars cross.
‘The terror’s former house demonstrates today that sacrifices brought in the name of freedom are never futile. From the fight against the two murderous regimes, the powers of freedom and independence have emerged victorious.’ – Museum brochure