The Hungarian Gulag

Thank you, Noel, for letting us take a peak into the past of your family and of many families who experienced the ugliness of Recsk. We visited there last year with one of our tour groups and it was a somber visit. The drizzly day fit the mood as we learned about the atrocities that happened there. ~ Liz

“This National Memorial Park of Recsk is the symbolical place of tribute to the traceless disappeared or nameless victims of political violence in Hungary…”

When I review some of my memories as a child of Hungarians, but growing up in the USA, one of the things that Hungarian immigrants from later waves spoke of in hushed tones was the terror of living under the Communist dictatorship. One word—Recsk—usually brought the conversation to a chilly and rapid end. I remember seeing the fear in these people’s eyes when Recsk was mentioned. A conversation I had with Liz Szabo Vos was the inspiration for this piece.

I need to first sketch out my Hungarian background. My mom’s family emigrated from the Miskolc area around 1909-1910. They were part of what was called the “first wave” immigrants, the first large wave of Hungarians coming into the United States. They went through Ellis Island and all the other immigrant experiences of the first half of the 20th century. My father, on the other hand, originally had no intention of emigrating to the USA at the end of World War II. However, had he been repatriated, as an officer in the Royal Hungarian Army, he would have been marked for liquidation by the Communists. So, his decision was made, and he arrived in the US as a displaced person in 1950. My parents met in Detroit and were married in 1953. 

Tribute on barbed wire fence at Recsk.

In 1956, the Revolution broke out in Hungary. My parents actively aided any Hungarians fleeing the aftermath of 1956 that ended up in Detroit. I’m not sure how big a part they played, but many people in the Detroit Hungarian community, when they see my last name, mention my parents’ names and ask if I’m related. What I did find out in reviewing my dad’s correspondence with his brother in Hungary, was that word got back to Hungary about his efforts helping the 1956ers and from about 1958 on, there was a price on his head. Had he even visited Hungary he would have been killed. The most his brother had said, in a letter to my dad, is that it wasn’t advisable to visit because of “fever,” that being the code they used when things were too hot in Hungary. As best as I’ve been able to find out, the price was on my father’s head until he died in 1984.

One thing I noticed, when I was old enough, is that this latest wave of Hungarians was very circumspect about what they talked about. They were always eager to reminisce about things like the food in Hungary (it was always better there than in the USA), the music, folk songs, dances, and things like that, but when I’d ask questions about everyday life, many times the subject got rapidly changed. My parents told me there were bad things happening in Hungary, and people didn’t want to talk about them. As a preteen and teen growing up in America, I had no idea what they meant, since life here was very benign compared to that in Hungary. I realize now that if I had been exposed to 1/10th of the everyday terror Hungarians endured under Communism, my life would have been profoundly affected. It was a glaring contrast to my grandmother’s contemporaries who talked about everything they experienced in Hungary with not too many filters unless it wasn’t fit to share in front of a child—usually the marital escapades of a member of somebody’s family.

Guard Tower at Recsk.

Sometimes, however, if I was around Hungarians from the same village or town in Hungary, they would invariably reminisce about someone who had been unable to get out of Hungary. It was then that the conversation moved to hushed tones. I would hear things like “the last time I saw, the police were taking him away.” “We don’t know where he went.” Recsk was never mentioned, and I have a gut feeling that the mere mention of the place was just too terrifying to even speak of. It’s almost like the Hungarian GULAG system was a pyramid of terror, with Recsk at the very pinnacle, and viewed with justifiable fear and terror by the average Hungarian.

And now, fast forward to 1989 and the regime change. Not long after, the secret police archives were opened and I started looking at some of it to try to fill in some of the blanks I knew were there from the stories I’d heard growing up. That’s what supports my conjecture of Recsk as the pinnacle of terror in Hungary—in some ways not even the Nyilas under Szalási were quite as bad—they had the Nazis to do their dirty work. I didn’t get to make my first visit to Hungary until 1999. Up until 1997, I was serving in the US Navy, and because of my security clearances due to the projects I was assigned to, any Eastern Bloc countries were off limits, in fact, I was warned not to go within 50 miles of a border with a former Eastern Bloc country. Finally in 1999, the ban on travel to the former Eastern Bloc expired and I was able to go. My Hungarian was very rusty by then, because after my dad died, my mom stopped speaking Hungarian. I made a couple of trips, usually of the tourist package type, until I reconnected with my cousins in Törökszentmiklós in 2004. Finally, in 2007, I was able to visit with them for the first time. During that visit, one of the places we visited was the Emlékpont in Hodmezővásárhely. I remember, as we were browsing the photo exhibits, including some of the victims of torture, that my cousin’s face turned chalk white and the conversation was once again in hushed tones. It was then that I understood what the 1956ers were getting away from, and how the terror of those experiences changed their lives, and the lives of Hungarians who stayed, forever. Prior to that, I’d heard about Recsk and done some research into the place, but when I asked my cousins about it, they basically said Recsk was now in the past and it was best to leave it there.

Accomodations in Recsk.

Today, many Hungarians are still reluctant to speak of the old days under Communism. Sure, they remember the good things like guaranteed jobs and income, free healthcare, and the like, but they still don’t mention the price they paid in terms of everyday terror that was used to maintain that system. And, the memories of what they shared and what I ultimately found out on my own have made me rededicate my life to making sure that such systems are never again able to take root anywhere on this planet.

Noel Siksai is a retired Navy Reserve officer, corporate manager, consultant and community organizer currently living in Atlanta. He is originally from metro Detroit and is the child of Hungarians, and is a first generation American on his father’s side. Noel has been to Hungary and feels at home there even though he is American born.

4 People have left comments on this post



» Cathy Ur said: { Oct 3, 2020 - 04:10:06 }

This was a very interesting article; thank you for sharing. Although I am certain my parents had heard of Recsk I was not made aware. I could identify with so many things you wrote about – the love to talk about food and culture, not anything about hardship. But that is also an important part of Magyar history to know about. Thank you.

» Liz said: { Oct 4, 2020 - 10:10:47 }

You’re welcome, Cathy!

» Elizabeth Lengyel-Watson said: { Oct 4, 2020 - 10:10:22 }

My mom and dad emigrated in the early 1920s and moved to Canada. Dad wanted to visit his homestead and travelled to Hungary in early 1956. I remember him mentioning that he had a red feather in his fedora and that raised a lot of questions about his politics, making him very uncomfortable. He said he could feel the tension building and decided to return home as quickly as he could. He left Hungary in the nick of time just before the communists moved in. If he had stayed a week longer, he might not have been able to leave. I don’t know if any of Dad’s relatives mentioned Recsk in their letters but he never mentioned it to me. It was interesting to read Noel’s article. Thank you for publishing it.

» Liz said: { Oct 4, 2020 - 10:10:18 }

You’re welcome! It was eye opening to walk on the grounds because it wasn’t really discussed in our home either although I would suspect my parents knew those kinds of things had happened in Hungary.