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Victims of Communism: The Nightmarish Forced Labor Camp Recsk, the ‘Hungarian Gulag’

Péter Cseresnyés 2020.02.25.

During the Rákosi era, out of all the forced labor camps established in Hungary, Recsk was the most notorious one. Between 1950 and 1953, the camp, known as the ‘Hungarian Gulag,’ detained about 1500 political prisoners who were considered dangerous to the regime. Those brought there had to work in inhumane conditions, were malnourished, lacked meaningful medical care, and they had to suffer the torture of their captors. Many lost their lives here and to this day we don’t know exactly where most of them were buried.

In addition to the internment camps that existed since the end of World War II, forced labor camps were set up in 1950 to punish people labeled as enemies of the communist system.

Hungary’s most notorious camp was established near Recsk (Northern Hungary), in the summer of 1950 under the direct control of Hungary’s communist secret police, well known for their merciless brutality, the State Protection Authority (ÁVH). People were taken to the strictly guarded secret camp, without trial or conviction.

‘Recsk Forced Labor Camp’ memorial by the sculptor Ádám Farkas in the Recsk National Memorial Park. Photo: Péter Komka/MTI

Historians estimate that the number of prisoners in the labor camp operating for three years was constantly between 1,300-1,700, while 109 internees died there due to regular torture.

The first internees themselves started constructing the buildings. They built the barracks and the 3-meter barbed wire fence around the area assigned for the future camp. They also built sentry towers using the trees from the surrounding forest.

The guards of the State Protection Authority, as ordered by Mátyás Rákosi, considered the following slogan the basic principle of the treatment of the inmates: “Don’t just guard, even hate them!”

Prisoners were cruelly treated especially after the work in the nearby quarry began. They had to get up at five a.m. and had to do 12 to 14 hours of hard physical work, in an undernourished state, with primitive tools. Almost all of them were starving, eating anything they managed to find in the forest, including mushrooms, green shoots, roots, berries, and even lizards or snails.

Reconstructed barrack in the Recsk National Memorial Park. Photo: Péter Komka/MTI

Medical care was inadequate, with little to no access to medicines. Many died of starvation or due to accidents in the Andesite quarry, while others were shot dead by the guards. To this day, nobody knows exactly the burial plot of the dead internees.

During its three-year existence, the camp was hermetically sealed off from the outside world. Only two people managed to escape from there.

The first internee to escape was Dobó József, who was able to flee to Czechoslovakia, but after several members of his family had been arrested, he gave himself up. The second time was a group of eight people who tried to escape in a well-prepared attempt on May 20, 1951. Most of them were later captured, but one of them, Gyula Michnay, was able to flee the country. Later, Michnay recalled the names of some six hundred of his fellow inmates in the broadcast of Radio Free Europe Munich. This was the first time Western countries ware informed of the labor camp’s existence, and relatives could also learn that their loved ones were still alive.

Reconstructed barrack in the Recsk National Memorial Park. Photo: Péter Komka/MTI

After the political turnaround following Stalin’s death, Imre Nagy became prime minister of Hungary, who abolished the internment and forced labor camps in 1953.

Those who survived the ruthless conditions were released in the summer and fall of the same year. They were forced to sign a confidentiality agreement promising they would never speak of the forced labor camp or their hardship in Recsk. After their release, they went either under police supervision or were imprisoned for several years. Most of the latter were released only during the Revolution of 1956.

The labor camp was dismantled a few years after its disintegration, and the barracks were demolished to leave no trace. Under the communist regime, the Hungarian authorities never admitted the existence of the place.

‘Hungarian Gulag’ Recsk ‘Symbol of Inhumanity, Exploitation and Communist Dictatorship’ Commemorated

The most well-known internee of Recsk was renowned poet, writer, and translator György Faludy. In his autobiographical novel, Faludy writes about their 1953 release and the pledge:

“On behalf of the Hungarian People’s Republic, I apologize for the injustice, wrongdoing, and indignity you have suffered.” The poet added that “We were warned that the law would impose a six-year prison sentence if we revealed anything about the circumstances, place, or cause of our captivity.”

“[In the confidentiality agreement], we were advised to report inquisitive people and tell our close relatives that we were on a study tour in the Soviet Union. It was a well-known slogan: ‘You keep silent until the grave, or you will find yourself in the grave!’

Featured photo by Péter Komka/MTI