Trapped in the House of Terror

(Photo from the Sydney Morning Herald)

Photo from the Sydney Morning Herald

After sitting next to an anti-Socialist socialist of Hungarian descent who was worried our country was slipping toward torture chambers on a flight the other day, I was reminded of an old column I wrote about visiting a torture chamber in Budapest.

I thought I’d share it. It’s kind of a like a Scooby-Doo episode without the dog, chase scenes, leaning towers of sandwiches, and layers of masks. Okay it’s nothing like a Scooby episode. But I do get trapped in a bathroom and the title is….

Trapped in the House of Terror

It’s a rainy day in Budapest.

The capital of Hungary is renowned for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and its romantic feel. The city “straddles a gentle curve in the Danube” that divides the hills on the western bank from the plains that spread out on the eastern. At least this is how Budapest is supposed to look, so says the black and white pages of my guidebook. I am too busy wallowing in self-pity to notice “leafy boulevards,” “architectural gems,” and “gentle rivers.”

There’s a Museum – Who cares? Here’s an Opera House- Big Whoop!

Rain thumps against the hood of my coat pounding out a depressing rhythm. Cars race past searching for mud puddles to splash through and onto me. Moisture slowly climbs up my pants from cuff to knee.

I spent the last month zipping through Eastern Europe. I am tired, hungry, but most of all, alone. I look with longing into bustling restaurants with backslapping patrons and at pairs of tourists meandering about, pointing with excitement at things of interest.

I am walking down the “leafy boulevard” by the name of Andrassy ut, counting cracks and studying their form. I miss my electric tooth brush, running shoes, Charmin toilet paper, David Letterman, home cooked meals, and the list goes on.

It starts to rain harder and I duck into a building with large banners on the outside proclaiming it to be the “House of Terror.” It’s an escape from the wet, but not the drear.

The “House of Terror” acted as the headquarters for the secret police of the Nazis around WWII and later the secret police of the Communist Party. Converted to a museum, it highlights the mistreatment and execution of Hungarian Jews and non-communists.

The upper floors house flashy videos and oppressive background music, black and white photos of helpless victims, defaced religious artifacts, and even a Russian tank in the atrium. But it is the basement where the terror really hits home.

The Nazis used the basement as a prison and to carry out executions via a frightening chair rigged with pulleys, ropes, and sharp objects, too sadistic for comprehension. When the Communists took over they turned the holding cells into torture chambers. There were rooms designated for the usual beatings and electrical shockings, but some were far more disturbing – strange sorts of deprivation rooms. All were dark, damp, concrete, and toilet-less. One is three-feet tall preventing its occupant from standing, its evil opposite was two stories tall but otherwise of coffin dimensions. Its victim would be unable to sit or lie down.

Fortunately patrons of the “House of Terror” have the luxury of plumbing and I seek out the bathroom. I enter the clean white, almost happy room, with thoughts of what it would be like to be trapped in a small space, living in your own excrement. The lack of hygiene alone could kill a man. I wash my hands and turn to exit. But wait…The door won’t open. I realize that the mechanism inside the door is worn out as I helplessly turn the knob 360 degrees.

I catch my reflection in the mirror – he looks panicked. In disbelief I try the door again – nothing. I’m trapped in the House of Terror!
The bathroom is just off a hallway in the middle of the exhibit and I can hear people shuffling outside. I meekly knock on the door. As I wrap harder, humiliation and panic grow.

Ten years from now: “Now class if you’ll notice the bathroom to your left – an American tourist was trapped in there for over two years. Visitors to the museum during this time dismissed his moans, cries for help, and incessant pounding on the walls, as part of the exhibit. Amazingly, the man survived on urinal cakes and an assortment of hand soaps. He later died of gingivitis.”

The door is pulled open and I look down into the face of a small dark cleaning lady, broom in hand. She looks at me with disbelief. A class of school children is herded along the opposite wall by their teachers, as far as possible from the strange tourist who can’t find his way out of the bathroom.

I wildly pantomime the failure of the door knob. The schoolchildren laugh and point and the cleaning lady shakes her head in disapproval. Humiliated, broken, and defeated, I head towards the exit.

The last room of the exhibit is filled with thousands of tiny lights – one for each victim of the House of Terror. The longings for my electric toothbrush, running shoes, and Charmin toilet paper fade.

Stepping back onto the street, it is still raining.

It’s a rainy day in Budapest. It could be worse.

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