An Infernal Play

Daniel Kovalovszky

2016 - Ongoing


In 1945 in Hungary, Mátyás Rákosi the leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, following the Soviet example, introduced a new Stalinist dictatorship in which human rights were severely violated. He established the State Protection Security (AVH) which was the secret police of Hungary from 1945. It was responsible for much cruelty, brutality and many political purges. As a result of show trials, several hundred thousands of political convicts were sent to forced labor camps, were imprisoned and hundreds were executed based on fictional charges. In most cases the charges consisted in supplying data to western powers and secretly organizing a revolt against the people’s power.

Having found the memoirs of the political prisoners a very dreadful and unknown world opened up for me and made me realize how little and superficial my knowledge is about this historical era. I decided to start a visual collection to shed light on a segment of what was happening during these obscure years that is unknown to many but still significant: the world of prisons in Hungary. I have identified the timeline to be examined from the opening of the first labor camps in 1945 to 1963, the amnesty. This world is disappearing unnoticed with the last old surviving witnesses and the historically important scenes.This is the time to record what happened in the past for the next generations, because it will not be possible to do this in 3-4 years.

My work is about these scenes and the old survivors who have been to the darkest prisons, labor camps of the dictatorship.There is a time pressure for my work as there are fewer and fewer former prisoners who are still alive. They live privately, hidden from publicity, carrying this heavy historical burden for which they no time left in their lives to process and still haven't received proper moral or financial compensation for their sufferings. I have made long interviews with them which have significantly changed my personal approach to the 20th century history of Hungary.

The places themselves also continuously disappear or change their function but they will be holding the remembrance of the physical and mental suffering of thousands for a long time. The years survived there cannot be fully represented by photographs, yet I will try to bring forward some of the memories of the prisoners evoking the characteristics of the era. Naturally while visiting these places I am also overwhelmed by a strangling feeling thinking how I would have reacted to the horrors and the imprisonment. Defining physical and mental freedom was already an important aspect in my previous work, even if in a completely different context. Now I am trying to explore the limits of tolerance of the human mind and the automatization of the survival instinct through the tools of photography.

My grandmother often told me a frightening story when I was a child, the gravity of which I only came to understand as an adult. When she was a young woman, during the years of dictatorship, my grandfather narrowly escaped getting lost in the maze of the criminal justice system, since an officer of the State Protection Authority started courting my grandmother; my grandfather became an obstacle. The officer made an offer to my grandmother, that should she choose, he could get rid of my grandfather so that no one would ever find him. If that were to happen, I might not have been able to start my work, either.

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  • Portrait of Ervin Ernst
    Ervin was sentenced to 11 years of forced labor during a show trial in 1954. He was charged with organizing the overthrow of the people's democratic state. Ervin was only at the beginning of his 20s at this time. He spent 2 years in prison in pit no. 9 in Csolnok mine. He was released in 1956.
    Quote from Ervin: “One has periods in his life where everything blurs, one day cannot be distinguished from another. In my view this is the essence of being in prison: you live by merely existing... At the same time there are days, events or maybe moments which get carved in your memory for good and appear as real and fresh even decades after.”

    Budapest, Hungary 2018.

  • Detail of dictator Rákosi’s villa in Szabó József Street. The dictator Rákosi and his wife lived here until 1949, and then they moved to Szabadság Hill for security reasons. They kept the villa for themselves and also pretended to be still living there.

    Budapest, Hungary 2018.

  • A Böhring drill of the period which the prisoners used in the mine in Csolnok.

    Csolnok, Hungary 2017.

  • Portrait of Sándor József Rácz.
    József wanted to become a physician and he studied at Medical University at the time of the 1956 revolution. He would have liked to become a surgeon. He was active in the organization of the revolutionary movements of 1956. He was only 22 years old at the time. He was arrested on February 1, 1957 after having been reported to the police. Judge Vilmos Szegedi asked for death penalty for him at first instance, whereas Judge Gusztáv Tutsek gave him life sentence. He stayed at the most dreadful prisons. Eventually he was freed at the time of the 1963 amnesty. A few months after the portrait was taken József passed away due to a long-standing illness.

    Tököl, Hungary 2017.

  • A dark cell carved into a rock on floor -3 in the fortress prison of Veszprém. Mostly church persons were imprisoned here. Convicts were given only a sack stuffed with hay to use as a pillow.

    Veszprém, Hungary 2017.

  • The inner facade of the Budapest Metropolitan Prison Service in Markó Street.

    After 1945 the prison in Markó Street became the center of the jurisdiction of the people’s democracy. This is where they had trials and pronounced death sentences for war crimes and crimes against the people which were carried out in the courtyard of the prison. This is, for example, where Ferenc Szálasi and Béla Imrédy, former prime ministers were executed. The prison was so filled up by 1946 that 1800-2000 prisoners were crowded in a building originally built for 700 people. They kept 30-35 prisoners in a cell that was built for 6-7 people. The cells were full of lice and bedbugs which were impossible to eradicate under these conditions.

    Budapest, Hungary 2017.

  • Portrait of István Válóczy

    István was merely 23 years old when he was summoned as a witness to a firefight in November 1956. He was interrogated and then, based on his own confession, he was arrested. The charges were organizing and leading the firefight. The court decision was life sentence, deprivation of all possessions, and 10 years of deprivation of political rights. Eventually he received amnesty after 5 years and 3 months, in 1963. He had just lost his mother while he was spending his years of imprisonment in the Central Collecting Prison, but he only learned it later from the guards. His wife also divorced him during the time of imprisonment when their common child was only 2 and a half years old.

    Quote from István: “It was not allowed to look up during the walking hour in the prison but when it was raining or snowing we could see the sky reflected from the puddles. We were allowed to walk only with our heads bent down and hands at the back. When you come out of the prison you notice that the world is colorful. There are colors. Inside everything is grey. The days are grey. The walls are grey. The clothes of the guards are grey, everything is grey. The hopeless time spent in prison is grey. There is only one color: grey. Outside everything is colorful. The world is colorful, the flowers are colorful. The sky is blue.”

    Budaörs, Hungary 2017.

  • The view of the mine in Recsk where prisoners were forced to do heavy physical work with basic tools 10-12 hours a day in every season. The camp in Recsk „opened its gates” on the dawn of July 19, 1950. 1500 prisoners who were hauled here without a court decision were forced to work under minimal conditions of existence continuously in the stone mine in the camp created following the example of Soviet Gulag camps. As time passed and as the number of people in the camp increased the guards became more and more violent. They inhumanly chastised, tortured and starved the prisoners. The place already had five barracks by late autumn 1950. The camp had 1300-1700 prisoners at its height. When closing the mine in 1953 all prisoners released were forced to sign a confidentiality document confirming they would not tell anyone about the conditions in the camp.

    Recsk, Hungary 2016.

  • Portrait of Lajos Kovács

    Lajos was arrested with the charges of holding and hiding guns during the 1956 revolution. Due to his young age (14 years old) instead of a prison he was taken to the Szőlő utca re-education institution for 6 months. The absurdity of his story is that the son of the policeman that beat him at his interrogation, being the local mayor, gave him an award for his participation in the 1956 revolution.

    Budapest, Hungary 2017.

  • Toilet bowl in one of the cells of Kisfogház prison. It was a frequent method of tormenting prisoners to feed them with salt and make them drink from the toilet.

    Budapest, Hungary 2017.

  • Portrait of János Straub
    János was in prison for 16 years and 2 months. This included 180 days of rigorous surveillance and 180 days spent in a dark cell. He was 21 years old then. He was given this sentence in a show trial in 1958 on the charges of attempting to cross the border illegally, taking part in the revolution, and multiple attempts of murder. He was released in 1971.

    Budapest, Hungary 2017.

  • The hexagonal interrogation room in the tower of the Rajk villa.

    The infamous Rajk villa on Svábhegy where many political prisoners were interrogated for weeks. There was a night bar with lanterns next to the villa where music was playing continuously so that the howls coming from the basement could not be heard.

    Budapest, Hungary 2017.

  • Portrait of Ottó Koós Békei.
    Quote from Ottó: “We fell into captivity on October 2, 1944 near Uzhghorod because we were surrounded by Russians. We were forced to march from Uzhghorod to Stari Sambor. There we were put on wagons on December 6, 1944. After 21 days in the wagon we arrived in Ufalei, Tchelyabinsk territory in the Ural Mountains. As we later learned from the Russians 650 people died on the way. I also caught the typhus with rash and lost weight, I was 48 kgs. After staying in different camps, the Soviet military court gave me death sentence on December 30, 1950. However, death sentence was no longer a valid penalty method so I was sentenced to spend 25 years in an penitentiary labor camp. My mother and grandmother were also taken to a forced labor camp and were shot on the way. We could occasionally exchange letters with my fiancée – we still hold the letters we wrote to each other those days.”

    Ottó could return home only in November 1955. Even then he was not released. He stayed in the prison of Jászberény and the Collection Center in Budapest. Finally he was freed on October 8, 1956.

    Siófok, Hungary 2018.

  • Detail of Internment Camp in Kistarcsa, Hungary.
    In spring 1949 the internees in Buda-dél internment camp were moved to Kistarcsa and this camp became the Central Internment and Concentration Camp. On 5 May, 1950 the State Security Authorities occupied the camp. All the windows were white-washed and ‘free’ movement inside the camp was prohibited. The number of people in the five male and one female ‘regiment’ was around 2-3,000 in Kistarcsa. There were no beds and the prisoners had to sleep on mattresses and blankets on the floor with a space of about 50-60 cms for one person. An old and shabby prison building stood next to the building of the Headquarters of the Commander.

    Kistarcsa, Hungary 2017.

  • Prison door of the time from Csillag Prison.

    Szeged, Hungary 2017.

  • Gallows in the Small Prison. After repressing the revolution in 1956 the people’s courts sentenced about 26000 people to shorter and longer periods of imprisonment or death from November 1956 to 1963. Death sentences were usually carried out in the courtyard of the Small Prison. This is where Imre Nagy ex-prime minister and his associates were executed on the dawn of June 16, 1958.

    Budapest, Hungary 2016.

  • Portrait of József Vidi

    József studied to become an assistant hairdresser. He was arrested by the Soviet military intelligence agency in Keszthely in December 1946. He was sentenced to 10 years of prison to be spent in a penitentiary labor camp and eventually he spent 7 years in a forced labor camp in the Soviet Union. There he worked as a mason and stove-builder. He could return home in November 1953 when the cases of all political prisoners were reviewed after Stalin’s death. While he was in Hungary he was still being watched by the Hungarian state security organizations until the 1970s.

    Quote from József: “In the Gulag in Mariopol there was no fresh water. They took the water from the sea. Those who could not help drinking from the sea water died. Then in 1947 more than 1000 people died in the lager.”

    Siófok, Hungary 2018.

  • Detail of mine in Recsk.

    Recsk, Hungary 2016.

  • Portrait of Ferenc Balogh

    Ferenc was a 23-year-old university student when he was arrested in 1951. He was going to get married to his fiancée in 10 days’ time. He was charged with organizing Catholic youth camps. He was imprisoned in the Internment Camp in Kistarcsa, and for a long while his parents knew very little about where their son could be. He was released in 1953 when Prime Minister Imre Nagy ordered the closure of all internment and labor camps. After his liberation he married his fiancée who was then expelled from university for this reason.

    Quote from Ferenc: “I was arrested by the people of the State Protection Authority at 2 am on May 11, 1951. I can never forget this. I was being interrogated for three months, day and night. Then they made me sign an internment decision. I did not want to sign it at first but I saw they would come and beat my head. They hit my head against the wall and kicked in me. I had to lie on the bed in the cell motionless because if I had moved I would have had to stand up and hold a sharpened pencil with my forehead against the wall.”

    Budapest, Hungary 2018.

  • The place of the lower labor camp in Recsk today. It can be found on the left side of the way to Sirok, east of Recsk. There were 160-170 prisoners working here.

    Sirok-Recsk, Hungary 2018.