In December of last year, I got to make a sort of pilgrimage to Budapest. Because I worked on a play about the city (Maria Irene Fornés’s The Danube), I had read about its history. As a socialist I wanted to see a place that fascism, then communism, had transformed.
My friend and I said our prayers at the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a monument made of iron shoes, strewn as if just removed. Installed by sculptor Gyula Pauer and conceived by Can Togay, the monument honors the memory of the Jews forced to remove their shoes before being shot into the river by Arrow Cross, the fascist party which governed Hungary from October 1944 – March 1945.
In the Jewish Quarter, we walked the streets along the path of the former ghetto wall, and we spent hours in the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe and one of the only to survive the Nazi occupation. A mass grave is within its walls, as are monuments and memorials to various antifascists who hid Jewish families or helped them cross the border. The exhibits on the museum floor show a fierce survival, naming those brave enough to sequester artifacts and letters in hidden places to ensure a record of Jewish life in Hungary.
We also took the subway to a bus on the outskirts of Budapest, and that bus to a tourist attraction called Memento Park. Its name sounds grandiose or at least pastoral, but in truth Memento Park is a bare grass lot surrounded by a low brick wall on the side of a two-lane road in the Hungarian countryside. Across the parking lot from the low wall is a wide, half-story structure large enough to walk around on, topped by a pedestal with human-size iron boots; the remainder of what was once an iron Joseph Stalin of a truly staggering scale.
The boots are all that remains, and the display of this deflation in such a remote spot as Memento Park is intentional: all that’s over now, it says; come see what we used to foolishly believe. And you almost can’t blame Hungarians for wanting to sequester the monuments to Communism away. After all, it’s the country where a worker uprising was quashed by Stalin sending in tanks; literally the origin event for the slang term “tankie” on the left.
Even still, walking through Memento Park is inspiring. Huge statues to the triumph of the common people are everywhere, most large scale and imposing. “Liberation Army Soldier,” for instance, was probably more than 10x my size as I stood for a photo next to it, my fist raised.
There are also smaller monuments. Busts litter the edges of the dividing walls, and on some walls are plaques in Hungarian, thankfully translatable with Google Translate’s Augmented Reality feature. I translated all of them to my friend as we walked, and what we learned shocked me.
You see, Hungary did not just sequester its communist past in Memento Park, but also much of its explicitly antifascist past as well. Many plaques and busts honored fallen antifascist heroes, those who opposed the Arrow Cross and the Nazis, those who hid Jews, and those who attempted both successful and unsuccessful assassination plots. Two particularly surprising cases of erasure were Kató Hámán and Endre Ságvári, who both at one time had plaques on their homes memorializing them, as well as a street named after them nearby. Hámán was a Communist and an Esperanto activist who served on the leading committee of the Hungarian Communist Party before Miklós Horthy’s Nazi-allied regime arrested her and murdered her in prison. Ságvári was part of the resistance to the German occupation in WWII and died in a shootout with the police. However, the guide to the park claims Hámán died of a disease she contracted in prison, and in Hungarian popular culture, Sagavari is portrayed as an ordinary criminal rather than an anti-fascist martyr. Now all that remains of their bravery and commitment to humanity is the remaining bronze, sequestered in a kitschy tourist park, on the cusp of being lost to history.
Antifascism is not just opposition to a terrifying and violent order that erases and extinguishes difference. It’s also a positive commitment to protecting others, staking out a belief that life is sacred and that our common humanity is worth celebrating. When we downplay antifascism, we risk losing these legacies, our shared left history, and potentially the lives of our marginalized comrades...maybe even ourselves. Let’s take the fascist threat seriously, and let’s make that a part of building a better world, one where we re-affix these plaques and uplift our solidarity.