The mystery of the dungeons beneath Köztársaság Square

In the 1950s, “buzzer terror” and “black car visits” became everyday, or rather every night occurrences. What this meant was that people grew to fear the ringing of their doorbells because it might well turn out that they would open the door only to greet the secret police. The police had arrived to take the head of the household or another family member away on trumped-up political charges or would arrive to deliver a notice of internal exile. The secret police always arrived via black cars. In the terrorized atmosphere of early 1950s Budapest, rumors abounded of how there was a human meat grinder for those people who the authorities wanted to disappear without a trace, with their remains tossed into the Danube. Another rumor was that a dungeon was built beneath the Budapest communist party headquarters at Köztársaság Square (today John Paul II Square), where innocent victims were held.

The siege of the party building at Köztársaság Square is one of the revolution’s most painful events, for it was where mob justice was dispensed against the secret police that resulted in summary executions and lynchings. After a short standoff, the armed fighters laying siege to the building managed to capture it with the help of tanks that arrived on the scene. As to what exactly happened during the siege, the reconstruction by the historian Éva Tulipán left several questions unanswered: what were the circumstances of the death of local party chief Imre Mező, who was last seen leaving the building waving a white flag? Additionally, how many people were lynched? Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini, the French photojournalist for Paris Match was also mortally wounded at the scene by a stray bullet. Since Mező was a personal friend of János Kádár, who would lead the post-revolution government, the incident became the centerpiece of the post-revolution propaganda that claimed that the whole revolution was really a counterrevolution.

Attempts were made to find the rumored dungeons that may have existed beneath the square using the best technology available at the time, and radio signals were used as well. The search was not fruitful, however, and no prisoners were discovered in the basements. Nonetheless, it was due to the totalitarian dictatorship of the 1950s that the people believed that a dungeon may have existed, and put every effort into finding and freeing those who might have been languishing inside.

Eszter Zsófia Tóth