The Last Remaining Traces – Transitions Online

A Hungarian photographer captures the visual record of the brutality of the post-war period, slowly fading from memory. From Telex.hu.

It so happened that in 1956, my maternal grandfather became president of the Workers Council at the Szeged Fur Company. According to family tradition, he was liked by his coworkers and was elected by popular vote, which ended up determining the fate of my grandpa, who was in his fifties at the time. Having been charged with counter-revolutionary behavior, he was sent to the Interior Ministrys internment camp (transformed from the former Hussar barracks) in the town of Tokol. After his release he couldnt get a job at home in Szeged, so he went to Budapest where he worked as an unskilled laborer.

I also made it to the Tokol prison as a journalist, at the turn of the millennium. At the time, my grandfather had been dead for 20 years, and the prison had been functioning as a juvenile detention facility since 1963. Although I was there to interview teenage inmates, I spent much of my time there thinking about where my grandpa may have sat and I stared mesmerized at the walls and anything else my grandpa might have seen, touched, sensed: the doors, the handles, the benches, the tall trees.

I was reminded of this search when I sawDaniel Kovalovszkysphoto series entitled: Scenes of an Infernal Play. Ah, yes, the scenes!

Looking at historical scenes is one of the most exciting things in the world, and one need not go far to do it around here its enough to go out into the street. A good example is Kossuth Square in Budapest, where on 25 October 1956, people sought safety under the arcades of the building of the Ministry of Agriculture [Ed.note: during the first days of the Hungarian Revolution]. The building is still there today, and it still has the same function as it had under each Hungarian government since 1889.

Or another good example and we have already arrived at Daniel Kovalovszkys photos is the well-known view of the Badacsony mountaintop. It is a small addendum that the mountains silhouette will forever be a reminder of where the basalt for the streets of Budapest was quarried between 1949 and 1954 by the inhabitants of the Badacsonytordemic prison camp.

The scenes photographed by Kovalovszky are even more exciting though. He worked on his two-part series for two years: the one entitled Black Hole is about elderly political prisoners, and the part entitled The Heritage is about the children of those who were once important players within the communist party or state leadership, but became victims of show trials. The photos show old or very old people (some of whom have died since being photographed) on carefully lit photographs. There is no background, nothing to distract from the face almost as if they were all in some idealized afterlife.

Kovalovszky visited all the locations where those convicted in the forties and fifties spent their days. He went to prisons and courts that are still functioning today, and took a closer look at the rooms that have preserved the atmosphere of the mid-20th century. He photographed unchanged prison doors, fences, walls, window frames, spyholes, stages, barbed wire things that those imprisoned in the fifties saw daily. His goal was to find the last traces and the last living witnesses of the injustices of the fifties.

Anyone expecting dark-toned images to match the subject is wrong. These photos are as I have already said the exact opposite of the heavy, confusing times they tell us about: they are bright, clear, transparent, almost otherworldly.

The shabby, sterile world of the photographs helps to separate the subject from the reality of the present and evoke the mood of the time, the author, who also had a grandfather, says of his work. Although his grandpa did not spend time in prison, when he was still courting his future wife, he had a rival: a young AVH (Allamvvdelmi Hatosag, the State Protection Authority the secret service of the Peoples Republic of Hungary from 1945 until 1956) officer. When the photographers future grandmother told him that she had already made a decision and did not wish to continue with the officer, he mentioned that he will gladly help get rid of his rival who later became Daniel Kovalovszkys grandfather.

The labor camp in Badacsonytordemic operated between 1949-1954. Given that the authorities at the time made sure to cover up as many traces as possible, very few documents survived. During the Rakosi-era [Ed. note: Matyas Rakosi was the communist ruler of Hungary from 1946-1956], for many years this was the place that supplied the basalt blocks needed in Budapest. The silhouette of the mountain clearly shows how much of it was illegally extracted. The mine was closed in 1960 and afterwards the entire mountain was declared a landscape conservation area.

Straub spent a total of 16 years and two months in prison. During this time he was under strict custody for 180 days, and spent 180 days in a dark vault. He was convicted in a show trial for attempting to cross the border illegally, taking part in the 1956 revolution, and for multiple counts of attempted murder. He was released in 1971.

Following the suppression of the 1956 revolution, between November 1956 and 1963, about 26,000 individuals were sentenced to shorter or longer prison sentences or to death. The death sentences were mostly carried out in the yard of Kisfoghaz. This is where Imre Nagy and his companions were executed in the early morning hours of 16 June 1958 [Ed.note: Nagy was the reformist prime minister during the Hungarian Revolution].

Ferenc was a 23-year-old university student when he was arrested in 1951. His arrest happened 10 days before his planned wedding with his then-fiancee. He was accused of organizing Catholic youth camps. He spent two years at the Kistarcsa internment camp, and his parents knew nothing of their sons whereabouts for a long time. He was released in 1953, after Imre Nagy ordered the closure of all internment camps and work camps. After his release he married his fiancee, who was as a result immediately kicked out of university.

A quote from Ferenc:

The AVH arrested me at 2 a.m. on 11 May 1951. One does not forget that. I was questioned for three months day and night. Afterwards they made me sign my internment document. At first I didnt want to sign it, but I saw that if I didnt do it, they would beat my head to pieces. They beat my head against the wall, and kept kicking me. When I was in the cell, I had to lie motionless, because if you moved, they made you get up and hold a sharpened pencil against the wall with your forehead.

In the short time of his first premiership, Imre Nagy created and tried to implement the only positive economic and political program of the era. He closed all the internment and forced labor camps and curbed the all-out rampage of the State Protection Authority (AVH) by merging it with the Ministry of Interior. The reviewing of show trials and the rehabilitation of those who were innocently convicted or executed began. He also stopped the forced relocations and announced religious tolerance.

The Tiszalok internment camp operated between 1951-1953. It was established with the goal of building a dam and a hydroelectric power station. The prisoners were mostly POWs handed over to the AVH by the Soviet authorities in December 1950 and at the beginning of 1951 whom AVH did not release. Most of the captives were [ethnic] Germans (Swabianswho had joined the Waffen SS during World War II).

After 1945, the Marko Street prison became the center of the justice system. It was here that war crimes against the people were tried, and death sentence convictions were passed. Among others, former prime ministers Ferenc Szalasi and Bela Imredi were both executed here. By 1946, the prison was so full that there were between 1,800-2,000 prisoners in a building originally designed for 700. They often held between 30-35 prisoners in a cell intended for six-seven people.

The cells were infested with lice and bed bugs, and the overcrowding made their eradication impossible.

Attila Toth-Szenesiis a journalist at Telex, where this articlewas originally published.Szabolcs Barakonyiis a photographer at Telex.Transitions has slightly edited the text for style.Reprinted with permission.Telexis a news website started by journalists from Index.hu who quit en masse in July 2020, citing government pressure.Donations can be made viaTelexs site.Telex also publishes anewsletterwith links to its English-language content.

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