From secret interrogations to the “Vatican” of transit prison

NEB- 27.04.2019 (Czókos Gergely)

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  • 2019. April 27.

The years between 1948 and 1956 was one of the darkest periods of Hungarian history. In a country under Soviet occupation, the aim of the communist leadership was to keep society under total control by copying Stalin’s model and by creating an atmosphere of fear. We still do not know exactly how many times criminal sanction was imposed -in a significant number of cases on political grounds- but according to even the most moderate estimations there were hundreds of thousands. Among other things this was a topic at the conference “Judiciary and law enforcement under the supervision of the State Protection Authority” organized by the juridical research group of Committee of National Remembrance (NEB), the Hungarian Prison Association (MBT) and the National University of Public Service, Faculty of Law Enforcement (NKE). The conference was held on 25 April in the Law Enforcement Studies Building and boarding house of NEK.

The communist takeover form 1945 brought about profound changes in the field of law enforcement. Act II OF 1950 cancelled the criminal code (Csemegi Code) that had been used since 1878  more than seventy years and introduced single level law enforcement, where the only form of custodial sentence was a category “imprisonment”. The communist establishment discarded the earlier practice of differentiating according to the severity of the crime and based it on almost exclusively on class origin. Justice which was practised on political grounds increased the load on prisons. While today there are about 70 thousand criminal sentences a year in Hungary, 12-13% of which is imprisonment, in 1951-1952 650 000 people were prosecuted, 387 were sentenced, 75% of whom were sentenced to imprisonment.

The political police was at the peak of its power between 1950 and 1953 in Hungary. Right after WWII the organization was placed under communist control and according to Decree 4.353/1949 on 28 December 1949 it was given independence from the Ministry of the Interior and became an organization in its own right: The State Protection Authority (ÁVH) was directly under the Council of Ministers from 1 January 1950. As Barbara Bank pointed out in her talk, the Central Leadership Political Committee of the Hungarian Workers’ Party defined the role of ÁVH in their decree of 20 February 1950: “the State Protection Authority is to be an outstanding weapon in the hands of our party, which can abort any hostile activity successfully and in time.” To serve this purpose, more penal institutions (the prison in Vác, the transit prison, the state security prison in Mosonyi Street a.k.a.’Toloncház’) and internment camps (in Kistarcsa, Recsk, Tiszalök, Kazincbarcika and according to the latest research, in Bernátkút and Sajóbábony) were placed under the exclusive supervision of the State Protection Authority.

The State Security Prison in Mosonyi Street (better known as "Toloncház") was overtaken gradually by ÁVH from July 1950, pushing policemen out of the building (that partly functioned as police barracks). Although there were significant extensions to the organization, the prison remained one of the worst penal institutions in terms of conditions. There were two cells in the building where 30 people were cramped in spite of the fact that it was designed for ten prisoners. It was typical for the conditions in Mosonyi Street that although they were given a new kitchen, the cutlery and dishes were stolen, so the food was delivered from the barracks next door as well as from the Institute of the Hearing Impaired. It is also quite telling that although the State Protection built a wall to separate themselves from the police, after 22 November 1950, after the whole building was taken by the State Protection Authority, the idea of the wall lost its purpose and it was pulled down. There were secret interrogations in Mosonyi Street: at nights prisoners from Recsk, Kistarcsa and Fő Street were questioned. Besides, from the winter of 1950 the prison functioned as a filter for prisoners of war. For some prisoners of war taken here, however, this was not the first stage of freedom. Many were taken to the construction site of the airport in Kecskemét, some were taken to the internment camp in Tiszalök where they participated in the building of the hydroelectric power station, and those who were sent to the internment camp in Kazincbarcika in October 1951, helped to build the walls of Borsodi Vegyi Kombinát [Borsod Chemical Works].

There was a hospital in the prison where  on the second floor for extremely dangerous prisoners  the interned from Recsk were taken. In the hospital rooms on the first floor there were no glass window panes, so ill prisoners often left the hospital in worse condition than when they arrived. Besides, there were thirty beds altogether at the prisoners’ “convenience”, but sometimes seventy or a hundred and twenty people were in the hospital at the same time. The communist dictatorship considered churches as one of their main enemies. As part of the fight against the “clerical reaction” many individuals from the Church were taken to the authorities: the place and form of imprisonment varied from prison, home custody to nursing homes.

After the communist takeover in Hungary, many individuals from the Church were held in prisons under the supervision of the State Protection Authority, especially to prevent them from being in contact with other prisoners and from helping the desperate. Besides, this arrangement made surveillance or other forms of cooperation and the possibility of recruitment easier. The prototype of this method was the concentration camp in Dachau, where individuals from the Church were separated in two barracks. NEB member Attila Viktor Soós highlighted the role of the prison in Mosonyi Street, the one in Conti Street, the transit prison as well as the prisons in Vác and Márianosztra. The highest floor of the transit prison  due to the high number of priests and monks held there  were called “little Vatican”. In Vác many clergymen were put in solitary confinement and there were some, who lost their lives due to the inhumane conditions. In Márainosztra many were made to work and their family had to deal with the difficulties of keeping in contact with the prisoners in a penal institution which was close to the Czechoslovakian border.

The State Security Authorities often applied home custody for individuals form the Church. Before 1956 József Mindszenty and József Grősz were some examples for that, and László Ravasz, bishop of the Reformed Church of Hungary was forced to voluntary solitude, as he was not sentenced but outcast from public life. This type of custody was not ended in 1956: the Catholic bishop of Veszprém, Bertalan Badalik was interned to Hejce in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county, where he spent seven years in home custody. After the operation permission of religious orders was cancelled in 1950, mainly ill, elderly monks who were unable to do civic jobs were placed in nursing homes in Pannonhalma, Hejce and Vác.