One of the things I loved most about Budapest was the city’s history, particularly the Hungarian peoples’ struggle through WWII and Communism.
Hungary officially joined the Axis Powers in 1940, after pressure from Germany. While waging war against the Soviet Union, Hungary engaged in armistice negotiations with the US & UK. Hitler discovered this betrayal, and in March 1944, German forces occupied Hungary. Approximately 300,000 Hungarian soldiers and more than 600,000 civilians died during WWII, including among them at least 450,000 Jews and 28,000 Roma. Much of the city of Budapest was destroyed by bombings from both Axis and Allied forces.
In the early 1900s, the city of Budapest had a large and thriving Jewish community. In fact, so many Jewish people were business owners, government officials, or other prosperous members of the community that outsiders referred to the city as ‘Judapest.’ During the war, the Jewish residents of Budapest were either forced into a walled-in ghetto, or sent to Auschwitz. Between 1944 & 1945, over half of the Jewish citizens of Budapest had been killed.
The ‘Shoes on the Danube’ memorial (first set of photos below) was set up a few years ago to honor the Jewish people who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. These people were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river, but were first ordered to take their shoes off so that the shoes (valuable during the war) could be sold.
There exists today a thriving Jewish community in Budapest, & the city holds the 2nd largest synagogue in the world (see 2nd set of photos). In the synagogue’s park stands another Holocaust Memorial, the Tree of Life, which contains the names of victims who disappeared or died during the Nazi terror engraved on almost each of the 30,000 metal leaves. Thousands of bodies were buried under the memorial. Despite all of the hardships of WWII, Budapest today has the highest number of Jewish citizens per capita than any other European city.
Following the fall of Nazi Germany, Soviet troops occupied the entire country with the goal of forming Hungary into a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. ‘Stalinization’ of the country quickly began, with forced collectivism and militarization being instituted, and state terror keeping the population in constant fear. 350,000 officials and intellectuals were imprisoned or executed from 1948 to 1956, and worship of the Party Leaders was demanded.
The country gained widespread international attention during the Revolution of 1956, where protestors took to the streets revolting against the Communist regime. Though the revolution was ultimately unsuccessful, it was in the long run very instrumental in the downfall of the USSR, accelerating the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. In 1989, reformers within the Communist Party agreed to negotiation talks, and Hungary began taking down its barbed wire fence along the Austrian border – the first tear in the Iron Curtain. In 1990, the country saw its first free election.
The last set of photos in this post are from Memento Park, an outdoor museum showcasing Communist statues that had once been all over the city of Budapest. These statues are monuments of “Hungarian-Soviet Friendship” and “Liberation”, as well as statues of famous personalities from the labour movement, soldiers of the Red Army and other gigantic pieces (most were over 8 feet tall): Lenin, Marx, and other “heroes” of the communist world. Inside the museum, a film was playing that was once used as a training tool for communist secret police. The film gives such instructions as how to follow someone without being noticed, how to break in and plant evidence, and how to ‘recruit’ informants by framing them.
Hungary conquered and in chains has done more for freedom & justice than any people for twenty years. If their distress is ours, their hope is ours also.
Albert Camus, 1957
The 8-meter tall statue of Stalin was torn down by a crowd in 1949, and only his boots remained. These boots became a symbol for the revolution that was to come.
Hungarian-Soviet Friendship monument