At the start of our Viking River cruise down the Danube, we opted for a few days in Budapest. What a lively and interesting place. The heart of the city has shady walkways and grassy lawns, but is historic because of the brutal oppressions experienced there. It is overlain with statues of freedom and liberty.

My main regret was not knowing in advance more history of Eastern Europe. This regret was only reinforced as I read some books on Auschwitz which seem to be popular now (Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, The Sisters of Auschwitz by Roxane Van Iperen, and Dressmakers of Auschwitz by Lucy Adlington). Interesting to me were the cities from whence they were rounded up, cities I could now visualize first hand. The Jews in Hungary were among the last who were sent to the camps by the Germans. I am not sure what is drawing me to this set of experiences, but I do not challenge it, I submit.

I once read a description of Rome as keeping its history like layers on an onion, one of top of another to be peeled away. I felt that way about Budapest, so many eras and layers. So many occupations.

Historical Timeline

Prior to World War I for over fifty years, Hungary was a stable prosperous joint monarchy with Austria

  • During the Roman Empire, these lands were pillaged by the Mongols
  • Ottomans (1541-1699) ruled for 150 years while it was heavily fortified and economically underdeveloped.
  • In 1699 it shifted to being part of the Habsburg Empire.
  • In 1867 following an uprising, there was a joint monarchy for Austria and Hungary; this lasted until 1918.
  • The First Republic of Hungary last a little over a year from November 2018 to August 1919.

After World War I Hungary is dissolved

  • Following WW I the Central Powers forced the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy; two-thirds of Hungary were divided among Serb, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Romania and Italy. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon was a collective trauma, one of the worst dissolutions of a country ever witnessed. Half its population, over 4 million of the population were left outside of their ancestral home of Hungary. The 200th anniversary of Trianon was in 2020. A memorial in the form of a trench was installed to remember the lost names of cities, towns, and places. (See below)
  • From 1938-40 Kingdom of Hungary restored and retrieved some of its lost territories

During and After World War II Hungary is occupied by the Soviets

  • During WW II Hungary was occupied by the Soviets
  • Hungary had sided with Germany during WW II and when the war ended, the allies divided up Eastern Europe. Hungary was under the direction of Soviet Russia. This period proved as oppressive and dangerous as the war. Th first republic of Hungary was 1920-
  • Post WW II (1944-1945) Soviet Nazi occupation. The siege of Budapest lasted two months and much of the city was destroyed. The monarchy was abolished.
  • In 1944 the deportation of 440,000 Jews occurs between May and July. Upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau most were killed in gas chambers. Those not killed were sent to the Austria border to dig fortification trenches. This followed many years of antisemitic laws and decrees restricting access to jobs, removing the power to vote, banning marriage with Gentiles, and later forced emigration (forced expulsion).
  • The second Republic of Hungary was brief 1946-48 with many posts held by the Communists.
  • 1945-1949 Communist takeover and suppression of all opposition
  • Stalinist era (1949-1956) Socialism under Stalin
  • 1956 A Revolution was put down by the Russians; but it started a movement that would succeed thirty years later
  • 1958-1989 Kadar era

Following 1989 Hungary again becomes a republic

  • Third Republic of Hungary (1989-2012)
  • Fourth Republic of Hungary (2012-present). It is a parliamentary republic.

Statues in the Squares (Ter)

I could not have been prepared for the balance of the tour, it was a compilation of various memorials, statues and sites, that seemingly did not string together. Only later did I come to understand that this is reflective of the inner conflicts of the Hungarian people. Inner battles to tell the history, in some cases to whitewash it, in some eyes to present multiple perspectives. But seeing them, even in groupings requires interpretation, which I have tried to research after returning home and doing more study to explain the pictures we took.

Outside in the mall surrounding the Parliament Building is Kossuth Lajos Square where we were shown:

Kossuth Ter Memorial – the government in 1848 during the Austrio-Hungary monarchy who started the revolution against the Austrians. Kossuth was the finance minister and leader of the revolution.

1956 Memorial is a modern block piece done in black marble – remembering the people who fought in the 1956 revolution against the Soviets. Some mysteries still surround this event (why people were gathered; who were they) and the public is invited to share their information on a web site to tell the “Uncompleted Story.”

Francis II Rakoczi (Rakoczi Ferenc) on a horse – he was a freedom fighter against the Ottomans during the Ottoman occupation. Seated statue of Atilla Jazsef

 We walked a little further to a new monument, Osszetartozas emielekmu Memorial of Togetherness. This 2019/2020 memorial is a progressively deepening trench whose sides of black marble are etched with the names of cities and towns that were once part of Hungary (according to a 1913 registry).

During 1920 assimilation, the names were altered; with the wall, they are restored to the original on individual brick pieces.  This memorial descends down one level where it ends with an eternal flame.

We continued on to Martyrs Square which is newly reconstructed (2018) with a monument dedicated to the martyrs of the communist Red Terror in 1919 when over 500 perished. The original statue placed by Governor Horthy in 1934 was demolished in 1945.   To make room for it, a statue of Imrie Nagy (Hungary’s martyr prime minister during the 1956 revolution) was moved to nearby Jaszai Mari Square, an act not without criticism. These acts, part of a move by Orban government to restore the area to its look in 1944, is part of the intellectual-political struggles taking place and multiple views of how to depict the past taking place in current day Hungary.

Next on the tour was Freedom Square (aka Liberty Square), which again consists of many elements and is among the most conflicted site. It simultaneously shows pride of place and an attempt at reckoning with its Soviet past. The site was previously a barrack-prison and is where Prime Minister Batthyany was executed in 1849 following the Hungarian Revolution. After the building was destroyed in 1897 it became a park. Nearby is the imposing classical style Hungary National Bank; the Stock Exchange Building; and the US Embassy.

The centerpiece is the large Soviet Memorial, an obelisk topped with a Communist star was erected by the Soviets (clearing the previous statues erected by Horthy praising themselves for liberating the Hungarians from Nazi occupation. This is the last remaining communist statue with hammer and sickle clearly visible. Unpopular with the Hungarians and subject to frequent vandalism. Often a topic of political debate for removal, it may not last forever!

The area was surrounded later by other statues more acceptable to current day populace, including one to the hero of the 1956 uprising Imre Nagy showing him standing on a bridge over an artificial pool and gazing toward the Parliament building (his back to the Soviet symbols).

  • One of the most prominent contrary statues is that of US President Ronald Reagan – installed in 2011 by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Reagan is honored for his contribution to ending the Cold War and “freeing Hungary from the Russians.” His speech called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
  • US President George Bush – honoring his “From the Heart” speech paid for by Hungarian government.

Jewish Monuments

Budapest has dozens of monuments dedicated to showing and remembering. Perhaps the most prominent and well-known are the Shoes along the Danube. Unfortunately, I was unable to see these do to the area being under re-construction. They are a set of sixty cast iron shoes of all sizes (including children). This is the site where members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party ordered victims to remove their shoes, they were shot, falling into the Danube and their bodies drifting downstream.

The Holocaust Memorial Center has exhibits, newsreels and objects showing the gradual disenfranchisement of Hungarian Jews. There is also a synagogue, memorial garden and wall, and a tower with the names of communities where Jews ceased to exist. The Emanuel Tree behind the Dohany Street Synagogue is a metal weeping willow memorial with the names of 30,000 Hungarian Holocaust victims. It was funded by actor Tony Curtis, whose father was one of the victims. There is both a memorial and a statue to Carl Luiz, a Swiss diplomat and to Swedish Raoul Wallemberg who bravely helped save individuals by providing them documents and confronting the Nazis at great personal risk. A small section of the Ghetto Memorial Wall exists on Dohany Street.

We were shown, and then saw throughout other parts of Europe the Stolpersteine Blocks. These cobble-stoned sized brass plates are engraved with the names of Holocaust victims, their birth date, year of deportation, and cause of death. They are placed in front of the homes where they once lived, and serve as part of the street paving. Also called the stumbling blocks, they are subtle yet noticeable.

After leaving Liberty Square, our tour took us to the controversial Memorial to Jewish Victims (2014) which captures the inner conflicts in multiple ways. On its face, the memorial consists of a tympanum and white limestone figure which depicts Archangel Gabriel (National Symbol of Hungary) being attacked by an eagle’s claws (from the German coat-of-arms) and 1944 etched on the eagle’s ankle. The inscription reads: In Memory of the Victims. Here one finds the (1936) statue of General Harry Hill Bandholtz, a proud general in uniform with hands clasped behind his back holding his riding crop. The General is said to have (successfully) beat off Romanian thieves as they tried to loot and pillage the Budapest Museum.

The Jewish Memorial in Szabadsag Square has been extremely controversial from the start. Meant to mark the 70th anniversary of German occupation and to stir discussion, it was criticized for placing all the place for this shameful era on the Germans, thus ignoring the complicit role that Hungary played in rounding up and deporting its 800,000 Jews (as well as Roma, gays, and disabled), close to 450,000 who met their death.  Likely anticipating protest, the memorial was erected in the middle of the night. Protests they got which continue, unabated for the past eight years. Opponents see it as an ongoing symbol of their current right-wing government arrogance.

Opponents have turned this public space into a “living memorial for resistance.” In March 2014, a “flash mob” descended on the site and left stones, personal belongings and documents belonging to victims along with protest banners forming an anti-memorial. These are periodically removed and then repaired/restored by the opposition leader. They conduct civil discussions at the site focused on posted topics.

 A nearby playful interactive fountain that spouts up based on sensing motion and invites interaction with the viewer.

We learned pieces of this history during a walking tour offered by Viking. Our guide was a lovely and well-informed native-born Livia Szivos, who shared the country history as well as her own personal experiences growing up during Soviet control.  Later I emailed her with questions and she graciously provided me details, many that are contained in this narrative.

Parliament Building

We started out at the domed Gothic Revival Parliament Building facing the (Pest side of the) Danube River on one side and surrounded by a massive mall on the other three sides. On the façade are numerous statues of Hungarian leaders, Transylvanian leaders, and military figures. A 2014 reconstruction of the mall brought heroic sized memorials to Tisza and equestrian Gyula Andrassy.

The inside of Parliament has spectacularly beautiful ornamental stairs, mosaic floors, fresco ceilings, stained glass windows, furnishings, artworks, and the ceremoniously guarded crown room. The Central Hall culminates in a hexa-decagon (16 sides) with the Upper and Lower Chambers off of it.

Before leaving, we visited a room of maps and city model that shows how the boundaries of Hungary changed with regimes. Our guide explained that parts of other counties (Slovenia) they still consider culturally part of their country, despite political lines to the contrary. Theirs is a history of pride in country, in spite of numerous occupations; they believe in who they are, they are proud of their resistance; and most proud to now be their own country.