In 2018 in Australia, there has been a lot of publicity about the novel Ladies in Black by Madeleine St John, an Australian author who published this novel in 1993 but unfortunately died in 2006 before her book received the wide spread acclaim 10 years later. 2017/8 saw it turned into a musical that toured successfully around Australia (Tim Finn having supplied the score) as well as being turned into a film by Bruce Beresford. The film was very true to the novel; Beresford had bought the rights thirty years before from Madeleine St John who he had known at Sydney Uni and she had approved of his film script. It took him a long time to get financial backing for this lovely story about growing up in Sydney in 1959.
Three of the chief characters in the story of Ladies in Black were central European refugees. As I mentioned in Part 1 of these blogs about visiting Budapest, all I knew about Hungary was from the presence of Hungarian refugees walking past me on the way to factories while I headed off to Kogarah for my Secondary Schooling. While Madeliene St John doesn’t go into too much detail about these characters’ background, what she does say hints at the terrible tragedies of Hungary from 1939 to 1956, forcing many of their citizens to flee the country. In Chapter 12, she gives us some details of the married couple, Magda and Stefan…
Magda was Slovene and Stephan Hungarian; as Displaced Persons they had been given entry after the end of the war to the Commonwealth of Australia, and it was in a migrant camp outside Sydney that they had first laid eyes on each other. They had begun their lives’ conversation in French…
The other Hungarian we meet is Rudi who came to Australia in the mid 1950s. Magda describe him thus…
“Who can ever say with Rudi? It does not matter in any case. What is one more Hungarian more or less”
Rudi was a comparatively recent – a post-revolution emigrant! (Ch. 18)
What Ladies in Black illustrates for new millenium Australians is how much we owe to post war immigrants and how much we as a country have matured as a people for the presence of an ancient civilizing force such as that brought by Hungarians to our shores. Australia’s immigration policies of the future need to be debated fairly and with insight into our past and enthusiasm for what is possible for our open and tolerant society in the future. Perhaps more of us need to travel to Budapest as part of the research for this debate.
Day 3 in Budapest
The number 4 site on our list of must-see places in Budapest was the ‘House of Terror’. It sounds like a bad title for a horror movie and, not being a fan of horror movies, I wasn’t that excited about heading out on our third day with the ‘House of Terror’ as the first stop. The real problem however is that the story recorded in this Museum is not about fictional horror clichés, it records the worst realities of what humans can do to each other when political authority overwhelms the human rights of its neighbours. It is a place that many locals are keen to ignore.
An understanding of iconography is useful on arrival at Andrássy út 60 Budapest. Looking directly at Museum, around the top is a metal overhang that has two symbols cut out of it above the corner of the building. The one on the left is the symbol of the ‘Arrow Cross’ Party, a far right fascist party that ruled Hungary from October 1944 to March 1945 led by Ferenc Szalasi. It was a curious mix of startling ideologies in that it was anti-capitalist, anti-communist and anti-semetic. The other symbol above the corner of this museum was the Communist star representing the party that ruled Hungary from 1945 to 1989. This museum uses the two ‘stars’ as its logo to indicate the two different regimes that terrorised Hungary for 45 years of the twentieth century.
Public Art is very important in the Budapest Landscape with a wide variety of pieces to celebrate important individuals and cultural ‘concepts’. The piece outside the House of Terror, pictured above, appeared at first sight to be a piece of old streetscape technology. However it was an attempt to capture Winston Churchill’s political concept of the ‘Iron Curtain’; “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” Turning a concept into Art is not always easy but I admired the artist’s use of chains and the ugly rusty structure to make his point about this antithesis to human freedom.
The walk around the many rooms of the House of Terror is a daunting experience. It catalogues the many excesses of human brutality to the citizens of Hungary from 1938-1989 by other citizens whose human judgement had been twisted by the principles of their prevailing political ideologies. It reinforced to me that any philosophy that suggests that some people (the strangers!) are not quite as worthy of the same basic human rights as the rest of us enjoy, is a philosophy to be resisted.
The only comment I will make on our actual tour of the displays was our last slow ride down on an elevator that recreated the movement of condemned prisoners down to the many cells beneath the building. Both the elevator ride and the cells were extremely confronting.
A last point…the following statistic of loss of human life during one period that is covered by this museum captures so much of what the displays are on about.
Hungary’s Casualties between 1941-45
Military Losses…300,000-310,000, killed or missing in action or Soviet Gulags.
Civilian Losses…80,000, killed in military campaigns and air attacks plus the genocide of 28,000 Romani people.
Jewish Holocaust victims…600,000! (100,000 from Budapest)
The day got a bit lighter and brighter as we caught the metro from Octagon down to Vörösmarty tér and then walked the rest of the way to the tramway that ran along the Danube River. We were waiting for our tram opposite the Vigado, apparently the second largest concert hall in town. The first building on this site was burnt down during the 1848 revolutionary troubles and its replacement was caught in the cross fire of WWII fighting. The Vigado looked a little nervous to me as we headed past it it for the tram stop and passed the delightfully everyday statue of girl playing fetch with her dog (Sculptor Raffay David). The rest of our walk for the next two hours was marked by bronze creations like this that forced us to consider the back story of both the buildings we were looking at and the city of Budapest itself.
The tram took us to the back of Parliament house and we began our slow stroll around this amazing ‘Gothic Revival’ building. Like so many of the sites we saw on the previous day, this building was inaugurated in 1896, the year Hungary celebrated 1000 years since the 896 arrival of the seven Magyar chieftains. The highest point of the building is 896 metres high in a numerological reference to the Millennium Year. The first time I saw an image of this parliament building was on the side of one of the buses that transferred us from Vienna to Budapest; it was a striking image and I had no idea what or where it was. it was a great reward to finally discover it when I looked down on it from the Castle Cliffs of Budapest. The equestrian statue on the side shown in the image below is of Francis II Rákóczi (1676-1735) a Hungarian/Transylvanian hero who led the fight for independence from Austria back at the start of the 18th century.
The statue of this Hungarian freedom fighter must have passed some Communist Acceptability test as it was left untouched during the Communist era; the other equestrian statue on the other side of the parliamentary building of Count Gyula Andrassy, Prime Minister between 1867 and 1871 was demolished by the Communists. Its ideological message was considered too provocative of unnecessary freedoms and so might undermine local confidence in the promises of the new socialist paradise. Thumbing its nose at its past conquerors, the city recreated this statue and it was inaugurated (again!) in 2016.
From the parliament building we strolled along the Danube until we reached the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’. This very understated, simple sculpture attempted to recreate the simple image of the shoes that were left behind by Budapest citizens who had been made to stand on the edge of the embankment of the Danube River for the convenience of their executioners. They were made to take their shoes off as these were valuable on the Budapest black market of 1945. They were then shot, as individuals or as small groups tied together, and then pushed into the freezing Danube if the momentum of the bullet hadn’t knocked them off the wall.
The story behind the ‘Shoes Along the Danube’ is one of those stories that begs to be told, particularly as it illustrates the famous George Santayana quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems one of the truisms of history that fascist political parties need paramilitary wings who undermine the authority of local law and order to implement the philosophical and nationalist demands of their leaders. The most famous examples of these are Mussolini’s Black Shirts and Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment) who were the paramilitaries who led the way in the civic destruction and murder that marked the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Hitler himself placed the far right party, the Arrow Cross, in charge of the hen-house that was Hungary in 1944 and they immediately began to implement NAZI demands to eradicate the Jews of Hungary. It was the Jewish citizens of Budapest who were torn from their homes by the Arrow Cross paramilitary and summarily shot and disposed of on the banks of the Danube.
This tribute to those who met their fate on the bank of the Pesh side of the Danube was the creation of Can Togay and Gyula Pauer and was installed in 2005.
From Parliament House it was a simple trip on the tram back to our starting point near the Vigado Concert Hall. There was an amazing traditional Budapest Café nearby where the coffee and cakes were a divine break from the miserable weather besieging Budapest at this stage of the afternoon. From here it was back again to the Christmas Markets with a side trip to the beautiful St Stephen’s Basilica. This church was number 3 on our ‘Places to Visit’ list and when we arrived, we were not able to inspect the inside of the church as we didn’t have the entry price, one Euro coin! This was disappointing as it was the third St Stephens Church of our tour of Central Europe; we just had to be happy with the gorgeous externals of the building.