Dániel Kovalovszky: An Infernal Play
21 • 09 • 01Dániel Kovalovszky
My work looks at the fragility of human freedom and democracy as I record the current state of key locales of the communist dictatorship in Hungary. I visit the deepest circles of the hell of this period, which was marked by political division and which the country hasn’t come to terms with: the prisons of the Rákosi and early Kádár eras. The two endpoints of the period to be studied are 1945, when the first forced-labour camps were opened, and 1963, the year of the “great” amnesty. The questions which I used photography to answer were how it had been possible to survive abuse and isolation, and maintain one’s dignity at the same time. As I was doing my research, reading about the period, a system of visual symbols started to emerge in me.
There is, I think, no small responsibility associated with approaching this sensitive subject, in whatever manner, because it was one of the most controversial, most complex periods in the history of Hungary, and during the creative process I call upon the help of several independent historians to ensure the details are represented authentically.
After World War II, mankind believed that, having learnt from the bitter example of the dictatorial regimes of the past, it could build a more humane world. In Hungary—as in the other East European countries—history took a different turn. Mátyás Rákosi, Secretary General of the Hungarian Communist Party, started to build a Stalinist dictatorship, based on the Soviet model, in which human rights were egregiously violated. Hundreds of thousands were sentenced to prison or forced labour camp at show trials, hundreds were executed on trumped-up charges. Most of these trials were not public. In most cases the charge was spying for the Western powers and plotting against the people’s democracy. The state established several prisons, internment and forced labour camps to hold captive the massive numbers of people. Those who were imprisoned know that the details of countless occurrences that took place in there were never made public.
The memoirs of political prisoners revealed a frightening world I had not been aware of, forcing me to realize how superficial my knowledge of this period of history was. It was horrible to realize how easy it had been to disappear overnight—after a show trial or without any court ruling—in the maze of the “justice” system and be gone for years—or forever.
I began my work by identifying and documenting some of the prisons, which established an exciting basis. Since each photo shoot generated numerous new opportunities, I felt this would require years of research, carried out in a more focused way. I kept adding portraits and personal stories to the series. I divided my work into two chapters, distinct in terms of content. The first is Black Hole. This is about the elderly political prisoners who ended up in the murderous machinery that was constructed and maintained by Rákosi’s dictatorship and subsequently by the early Kádár regime (1945–1963). They were practically teenagers when they were thrown into the deepest circles of that hell, the penitentiary system. With dignity, they survived what seemed impossible to survive—and what they unfortunately did not have enough time left to process.
The second chapter is Heritage, which looks at the children of those who were important members of the communist party’s leadership and were suddenly declared enemies of the regime. Torture, interrogations and show trials were their lot; some were imprisoned, some were executed. Some, however, were released and admitted back to the party leadership.
Already when taking the shots for the series I was aiming for visual congruity as regarded tones and distances. It was similarly important to be selective, to leave out unimportant details. The shabby, sterile colour scheme of the photographs helps to remove the subject from the realities of the present and to evoke the mood of the time. I deliberately began to reflect on this dark and confusing period with light tones, transparency and accessibility.
The series involves lots of research, and archival images will play an important role in my work as they will help to reinsert the surrealistic, timeless world I have created into the time plane of history. I was using a 4x5 sheet film camera all along, which makes the process far more expensive and slower than digital technology, but compensates me with the safety it provides in terms of quality and ease of archiving.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has created a comprehensive, thematic image archive of this chapter of the Hungary of the 1940s and 1950s. Sadly, the past has remained unprocessed not only photographically, but also socially and emotionally. We may think the period came to an end, but contemporary Hungarian society subconsciously carries on and hands down to the new generations the burdens and negative reflexes of those times. The main reason for this is that there was insufficient social support after the political transition for the naming and prosecution of those responsible. As János Kádár’s dictatorship continued to soften, many forgot the dark decades. After the collapse of state socialism in 1989, in the heat of freedom, people began to travel abroad, establish businesses, and forget, as a result of which the real sufferers of the system did not receive adequate moral and material compensation.
My maternal grandmother often told me a scary story when I was a child, the weight of which I did not understand at all and could only appreciate as an adult. It was the early 1950s, she was young, and the man who became my grandfather was already courting her, when an officer of the State Protection Authority approached her. She told him she had already decided to marry my grandfather. The officer told her he could arrange for the disappearance of my grandfather, if she so wished, and no one would find him again. Had she chosen to take up his offer, I may not have been able to start my work.
I trust my work will have historical value as well and will convey something to future generations who were born into a free world, and have little knowledge of what a complete generation went through back then.
Chapter 1: Black Hole
István was 23 when he was summoned and interrogated as a witness to a gunfight that had taken place in November 1956. He was arrested on his own testimony, and was charged with organizing and directing a gunfight. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, total confiscation of property, and a ten-year ban on exercising political rights. He was eventually released on amnesty after 5years and 3 moths, in 1963. He lost his mother while in prison, and the guards informed him only some time after the fact. His wife divorced him during his imprisonment, when their child was two and a half years old.
István said: “We weren’t allowed to look up while out walking in the prison yard, but when it was raining or snowing we saw the reflection of the sky in the puddles. You could only walk with your head bent, and your hands behind your back. What you realize when you come out of prison is that the world has colour. Inside, everything is grey. The walls are grey. The guards’ uniform is grey, everything is grey. Your hopeless prison time is grey. There is only one colour, grey. Outside, everything has colour. The world is colourful, the flowers have colours. The sky is blue.”
József was studying medicine when the 1956 revolution broke out. He wanted to be a surgeon. He took an active part in organizing revolutionary activity. He was only 22 at the time. He was informed on and arrested on 1 February 1957. He was incarcerated in some of the highest security prisons. He was eventually released on amnesty in 1963.
Judge Gusztáv Tutsek’s last words at the trial were: “I will now pronounce the verdict: I sentence you to life imprisonment, although you are ripe for the rope.”
Ferenc was aged 23 and studying at university when he was arrested in 1951. His wedding was to take place ten days later. He was accused of organizing Catholic camps for youths. He was held at the internment camp in Kistarcsa, and for a long time his parents knew nothing about his whereabouts. He was released in 1953, when Prime Minister Imre Nagy ordered the closure of all internment and forced labour camps. After his release, he married his fiancée, who was immediately expelled from university.
Ferenc said: “I was arrested by the State Protection Authority on 11 May 1951, at 2 am. That’s not something you forget. I was Interrogated for three months, night and day. Then they made me sign an internment decree. I didn’t want to sign it at first, but I saw they were ready to beat my head in. They beat my head against the wall and kicked me. In the cell, you were supposed to lie motionless on the bed, because if you moved, they made you stand and hold a sharp pencil with your forehead against the wall.”
In the spring of 1949, prisoners were moved from the South Buda internment camp to Kistarcsa, which was made the central internment and transit camp. On 5 May 1950 the State Protection Authority took charge of the camp. The windowpanes were whitewashed and “free” movement inside the camp was prohibited. There were five male and one female “regiments” in Kistarcsa, with a total of two to three thousand captives. Those who did not get a bed slept on the floor, on mattresses or blankets, on sleeping places no wider than 50 to 60 cm. Next to the headquarters stood the dilapidated old detention building.
Peephole on one of the cell doors in the basement of the former KATPOL in Bartók Béla Street. It served to monitor prisoners. The former Hadik Barracks became the headquarters of the Military Policy Division (KATPOL) of the Ministry of Defence, which was controlled by the communists from 1945. A prison was built in the basement, and political prisoners were held under inhumane conditions.
In 1945, prior to the Soviet invasion, he joined the Armed Resistance Organization. In 1949 he was sentenced to imprisonment first by a court martial, and then by a people’s tribunal.
Gyula said: “Yours truly was given seven years, of which I spent six years and two months. I was first under arrest in Szeged, at the KATPOL subdivision, then in Budapest at the KATPOL in Markó Street, the Pest and Region Detention Centre, the right third star of the Remand Prison, in the Small Prison, in solitary confinement in Márianosztra, and I was finally released from the forced labour camp of the coal mine in Várpalota. I was in the records of, and kept under observation by, the 3/2 branch of the Ministry of Interior until 1990. After my release I worked in Makó as a loader, a labourer in the wood industry, and then I learned carpentry.”
Gallows in the Small Prison. After the 1956 revolution was crushed, from November 1956 until 1963, the people’s tribunals sentenced some 26,000 people to imprisonment of varying length or death. This was where Imre Nagy and others were executed on 16 June 1958, early in the morning.
Ottó said: “On 2 October 1944 we were surrounded and captured by the Russians near Ungvár. We were marched to Staryi Sambir, where we were entrained on 6 December 1944. We spent 21 days in the cattle trucks before we arrived in Ufaley in Chelyabinsk Oblast in the Urals. The Russians later told us we had had 650 dead. I too contracted typhus, I weighed 48 kilos. Having spent time in different camps, on 30 December 1950 I was sentenced to death by a Soviet court martial. The death sentence was overturned, and I was sent to a correctional labour camp for 25 years. My mother and grandmother were also taken for forced labour and then were shot dead en route to the camp. We could exchange the odd letter with my fiancée—we have kept those letters.”
Ottó could return to Hungary only in 1955, but was not released even then. He was incarcerated at the Jászberény prison and the Remand Prison in Budapest. He was finally released on 8 October 1956.
View of the Recsk mine where internees were forced to do hard physical work 10 to 12 hours a day, around the year, using primitive tools. The Recsk camp was opened in July 1950. The camp was based on the model of the Soviet Gulag, and held some 1500 inmates without a court order. The living conditions were appalling and the prisoners had to work in the quarry all the time. As the number of the prisoners grew over time, the guards became more and more brutal, punishing, tormenting and starving the detainees with beastly cruelty. There were five barracks by late autumn 1950. The number of inmates peaked around 1300–1700. When the camp was closed down in 1953, the released were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement to keep them silent about their experiences.
In prisoner lore, the motto of the camp was: “Enter and all you have left is hope.”
János spent 16 years and 2 months in prison, including 180 days of close confinement and 180 days in a dark cell. He was 21 at the time. He was convicted of attempting to cross the border illegally, for participating in the 1956 revolution, and on several charges of attempted murder in a show trial in 1958. He was released in 1971.
The interior facade of the Markó Street prison. It became the centre of justice for the people’s democracy after 1945. Crimes against the people committed during the war were tried here, and the death sentences were carried out in the yard. Among others, former prime ministers Ferenc Szálasi and Béla Imrédy were executed here. By 1946, the building, which was designed for 700 detainees, held some 2000 people. Cells built for six or seven would hold 30 to 35 prisoners. The crowded conditions made it impossible to control pest such as fleas and bedbugs.
In 1951, he was arrested by the State Protection Authority on charges of organizing against the state. Of his ten-year sentence, he spent three years in the Remand Prison in Kőbánya, and then worked in a coal mine for two years until his release.
Andor said: “Following six weeks of interrogation by the State Protection Authority on Fő Street, the ‘trial’ was held at the Markó Street facility. We spent six weeks waiting for the verdict, thirty of us crammed in a large cell. We were given 170 grams of bread a day and three tins of watery slop. At the trial, you could barely tell the difference between the hateful speeches of the prosecutors and the lawyers. The audience consisted exclusively of our interrogators from the State Protection Authority. ”
Chapter 2: The Heritage
The hexagonal interrogation room in the tower of the infamous Rajk Villa. The Rajk Villa on Svábhegy, where communist politician László Rajk Sr and his fellow accused were interrogated and tortured for weeks. In the building next door, a nightclub was operated, complete with lanterns, where music was played all the time so as to drown out the screams filtering from the cellars.
Portrait of György Marosán Jr. He is a physicist, the son of the communist politician, György Marosán. An ideologue of the violent application of the dictatorship of the proletariat, György Marosán Sr. became infamous, among other things, for demanding during the 1956 revolution that the communist dictatorship be maintained even by shooting into the crowds (“We’ll start shooting from today”), thus becoming the face of the retaliating state. In 1950, at the zenith of Mátyás Rákosi’s reign of terror, he too was sentenced to death, but he was commuted to life imprisonment in the second instance. He was released from Vác Prison after six years, and he immediately offered his services to the party leadership.
Said György Marosán Jr of his father: "As time goes on, I love him more and more and I am more and more critical of the system he created."
Portrait of Ferenc Donáth (physician) and László Donáth (pastor). Their father, Ferenc Donáth Sr, was a communist politician, a historian of agriculture, journalist, member of the National Assembly and Parliament. In 1958, as a co-defendant in the Imre Nagy trial, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for initiating and leading an organization to overthrow the people’s democratic state. In April 1960, he was granted an individual amnesty.
László Donáth said of his father: “Prison is prison for everyone. It is just as frustrating for the relatives. I think he was able to go through and survive so much because he simply forgot a lot. ”
A frame was overexposed during the making of the series, which is a perfect symbol for me of the void that remained after archival documents (e.g. records of the Rajk trial) and films were destroyed. These were instruments that could have helped to piece the missing parts of the story together. The information is there, but it was overexposed and the details can no longer be recovered.
Portrait of András Szirtes, Balázs Béla Prize-winning film director, cinematographer, editor, actor and musician. His father, Zoltán Szirtes, was a captain of the State Protection Authority, working in the procurement branch. He was nonetheless sentenced to two years in prison at a show trial in 1951, of which he spent one year in solitary confinement. He was charged with spying for Yugoslavia.
András Szirtes said of his father: “As soon as my father entered the office, he was stripped naked, spat on, kicked, beaten. When he passed out from the pain they threw water on him and beat him again. He couldn’t hold his bowels because of the pain. They beat him again. That went on for hours and then he was thrown into a dark cell. He was 31 at the time.” (From Vándorszem, a novel about the family)
Portrait of László Rajk (1949–2019), Kossuth Prize-winning Hungarian architect, set designer, former member of the democratic opposition, politician. His father was László Rajk, Minister of the Interior, who was executed in October 1949, after a show trial. His son was not one year old at the time. Rajk was also separated from his mother, Julianna Földi, with whom he was reunited only in 1954, when she was released from prison.
László Rajk said of his father: “My father took part in the creation of the system that is called the Rákosi regime, and which later transmuted into the Kádár regime. All told, I am proud to have taken part in the dismantling of that regime.”