Reckoning With the Past – Enemies Within: The Hungarian Gulag at Recsk

The village of Recsk is set deep within the Matra Hills of northeastern Hungary. Like many other settlements its size, Recsk contains small clusters of modest houses that line quiet streets. The village seems like just another wayside on the road to somewhere else. It is easily forgotten by travelers just a few minutes after passing through it. But mentioning Recsk around Hungarians of a certain age or those with a deep historical knowledge will arouse suspicion. This suspicion is likely to induce silence, a hallmark of unspoken fear. Recsk is well known for one thing and one thing only. Close to this unassuming, modest village was the Hungarian version of the Gulag.

Building Dystopia – Enemies of the People
From 1950 to 1953, five kilometers east of Recsk stood the most notorious internment camp of Hungary’s Communist era. During its short, but terrifying history the camp claimed thousands of lives and ruined even more. Under the Hungary’s hardline Stalinist ruler Matyas Rakosi, “enemies of the people” were supposedly everywhere. Arrests were arbitrary, denunciations a fact of everyday life, the population lived in terror of a knock at the door. Late at night the secret police would arrive and carry the innocents away. The Stalinist system imposed upon Hungary in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s justified itself by creating enemies. The unfortunate and unsuspecting suffered weeks of torture, in which confessions were extracted. They were then either shot or sentenced to hard labor. The living would be sent to the prison camp close to Recsk, where they would all too often soon join the dead.

Watchtower from the Recsk camp

Watchtower from the Recsk camp

At any one time, the camp held up to 1,500 internees. They labored in horrific conditions, toiling for hours on end while mining quarries. Starved and nearly worked to death, they stood little chance of survival. Undergoing the cruelest tortures, hundreds perished, broken on the wheel of ideology by a rigid, unceasing authoritarianism. This dictatorship was a demon seed that had been planted on Hungarian soil by their post-World War II Soviet occupiers. The main function of Recsk was to help achieve the promised utopia of a worker’s state. What this meant under Stalinism was that intellectuals, opposition politicians and various other “deviants” were ferretted out of society. This was all done in the name of building a worker’s state. If this was what a worker’s state looked like, than one shutters to think what the ultimate outcome of such a dystopia would have been if it had lasted much longer. None of this seemed to make sense, unless one was a member of the ruling clique.

The Punitive Barrack at Recsk

The Punitive Barrack at Recsk

Fellow Travelers – Fascism & Stalinism: The Same Difference
In a macabre paradox, many of the camp guards at Recsk turned out to be the same people who had once carried out killings and injustices as part of the fascist Arrow Cross during World War II. They had merely changed uniforms, insignia and slogans. The leap from one extreme to another was a matter of nuance rather than degree. Fascism and Stalinism were fellow travelers with much in common, including the need to create “enemies of the people” in order to sustain the system.  In 1953 Rakosi was ushered out of power. With the death of Josef Stalin, the new leadership in the Soviet Union felt that Rakosi’s methods were too harsh, even for them.

A much more moderate Communist figure, Imre Nagy was put in charge. He soon ordered the camp shut down, but this was not end of the trauma for prisoners who had survived Recsk. Before being released, they were ordered never to speak about their experiences in the camp. In addition, they were not allowed to get their old jobs and by extension their old lives back. Many intellectuals and artists were given menial labor duty. The humiliation continued on a much more benign, but no less hurtful scale. As for the perpetrators they went free. These faceless demons were unknown to a society that long bore the scars of their cruelty. None were put on trial. After the wall fell though, many were given a very different type of trial, in the court of public opinion.

A Soviet Tank in front of the wall of victims at the House of Terror Museum in Buda (Credit: drcw)

A Soviet Tank in front of the wall of victims at the House of Terror Museum in Buda (Credit: drcw)

A Public Reckoning – Facing Up To Fear
The misery and suffering that occurred at the Recsk camp really only came into the public consciousness after the turn of the 21st century. In 2002, the House of Terror Museum was opened in Budapest at No. 60 Andrassy Avenue, the former headquarters of both the fascist Arrow Cross and the AVO (State Security Service) of the Communist state. Today, when visitors first enter the museum they come into an open spaced square surrounded by multi-story cell blocks. On one wall are photos of hundreds of people, these are the victims, faces filled with confusion and fear.  Some of these people spent time at Recsk. On the opposite wall, facing them are the perpetrators. These are the faces of ordinary men and women, the faces of terror. This is as close to a public reckoning as the Recsk camp has ever received.

As for the actual site of the Recsk camp, after being closed down it was covered by a tree plantation. Today, all that stands on the site of the camp is a somber memorial, reconstructed barracks and markers outlining where buildings once stood. There are also a series of exhibits which explain the horrifying reality of life in the camp. Visitors are left to form their own opinions of the life, death and memory of a place that should never be forgotten.

Memorial Monument at Recsk

Memorial at Recsk

The Judgment of History – No Escape
Despite the work of museums and exhibits, in some ways the Recsk camp is as invisible today as when it was functioning. One of the phrases said to have been used by the guards at Recsk was, “We don’t have to account for the prisoners.” That was true then and also after the camp was shut down. Nearly all the officials and guards who took part in the heinous crimes at Recsk never had to account for the lives they willingly destroyed. Yet those same officials and guards forgot one thing, the judgment of history, which has been damning. Unlike the Recsk camp which lasted less than four years, the judgment of history will last forever.


7 thoughts on “Reckoning With the Past – Enemies Within: The Hungarian Gulag at Recsk

  1. Thank you for this article. It is the best description I have seen of the current state of the camp.

    If you are interested in a personal account of life as an inmate at Recsk, I highly recommend My Happy Days in Hell, by George Faludy. (Pokolbéli víg napjaim, Faludy György). Faludy was one of Hungary’s foremost poets and essayists. He left Hungary in 1938, lived in Paris, then enlisted in the American Army to fight in WWII. A socialist, he returned to Hungary after the war. He worked as a news reporter but became disillusioned with the authoritarian regime. He was sentenced to Recsk.

    His book, My Happy Days in Hell, describes prison life at the camp. One of his vignettes is about his effort to raise morale and retain sanity of his fellow inmates (mostly intellectuals like himself) by having them memorize poems Faludy composed while in the prison. (It would have been impossible to hide his writings from the guards.) From this came his collection, Learn This Poem of Mine by Heart.

    Faludy was released when the camp closed. He escaped Hungary, lived in England, where he wrote My Happy Days in Hell in 1962. Faludy then moved to Canada and wrote Notes From the Rainforest, a brilliant collection of essays and commentary about western society which he produced while living in the west coast rainforest on Vancouver Island. Faludy returned to his native Hungary in 1988, With the fall of communism, his books – including My Happy Days in Hell – were finally printed in Hungarian. He died in 2006, at age 96.

  2. Thank you for sharing – My father Tibor was also at Recsk between 1951-1953. Do you have any suggestions on how I can get more info

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