Beneath its tree-lined avenues and unexpected blend of classic and contemporary architecture, Budapest offers more than scenic views of the Danube or iconic Parliament building. The stoic crowds on the metro and cigarette-smokers on street corners carry their own stories to tell. As relaxed as Budapest may appear, I have come to sense that underneath the beauty is an internal struggle.
Communism in Hungary fell in 1989, only 28 years ago, and in some ways the country is still reeling from the aftermath. Older generations from families such as our CIEE program coordinator, Dóra Kovács, still collect extra supplies of non-perishable food items and money for the unforeseen day when such necessities are no longer accessible. On a deeper level, it appears Hungarians continue to look to the recent communist era as a framework for understanding life today.
“Our worldview has told us to appreciate our past, to get strength from the past, where many of the lost battles and wars are at,” Eötvös Collegium professor Mária Sántha said.
American culture urges us to forget the past, to leave it behind us and move forward – empty-handed, but ready to receive. Perhaps we have a lesson to learn from our Hungarian friends. Moving forward doesn’t necessarily mean forsaking the past.
The city of Budapest is littered with communist remains from the architectural details to the stories within the walls. Winding streets reveal communist figures and statues, and places such as Memento Park and the House of Terrors memorialize it all. These are the very things – the ideas, the people, the places – that were the source of much pain and agony. Why keep them on display for all to remember and relive?
According to Zsófia Matisz, a CIEE employee from Eastern Hungary, everything appeared “OK under communism, but it could not be true,” Matisz said. “It’s just a painting. People who saw behind the painting were punished or lived in fear.”
“In my generation, it’s not hard to speak … our parents have [the] memories,” Matisz said.
On a visit to the village of Recsk, the location of an infamous death camp from the communist regime, Matisz was reminded of her own family’s story. Matisz’s grandfather was taken to a forced labor camp in the Soviet Union. Like the camp at Recsk, it is probable the only rest Matisz’s grandfather received from hours of hard physical labor was on a wooden bunk in a cold barrack. Beside the few accounts of survivors, little information remains about forced labor of Hungarians in the Soviet Union.
“We were forced into an inhuman frame of mind. We did not know whether we were still human beings or not.” – Confession of László Suba, former internee at Recsk labor camp
Matisz’s grandfather survived the horrors of the Soviet camp but died before Matisz was of age to fully understand his story. “I’m very sad I don’t know,” she said, “Now I can’t ask him.”
Matisz does not personally carry memories from the communist era but is eager to learn more about her family’s past. Growing up, she said her family never spoke of such topics, perhaps a consequence from the former regime. Now in her 30s, Matisz recently began a conversation with her mother about the realities of communist rule.
“It is important to understand the past generation or you can’t understand the life you want to live,” Matisz said.
If not for memorials such as the Recsk labor camp or the House of Terror, memories of life under the communist regime would have died along with the people who experienced it firsthand. Today, remnants of communism serve as reminders of a bygone era for the older generation; for the new, they invite an opportunity for empathy – to walk alongside the path they were forced to trod.
“Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyse it and think about it!”
– Akos Eleod, architect of Memento Park