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 until 1956.
It was responsible for much cruelty, brutality and many political purges. As a result of show trials, several hundred thousands of innocent citizens (political prisoners) 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 organising a revolt against the people’s power.
In 2016, Daniel Kovalovskzy began researching the historic memoirs of political prisoners. It was at that point that it became clear to him how superficial his knowledge was about this era. Kovalovskzy 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 highly significant: the world of prisons and labor camps of the dictatorship in Hungary between 1945 and 1963. “I visualised this dark and chaotic period in a light-toned, transparent and easy to understand way which is factual and was controlled by historians.” says Kovalovskzy.
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.
He went on to investigate the fragility of human freedom and democracy while visiting the historically important scenes of the Hungarian communist dictatorship in their present state. The places themselves are continuously disappearing or have changed their function but they hold the remembrance of the physical and mental suffering of thousands. When speaking to Kovalovskzy, he explains how the pain and suffering can never be fully represented by photographs, yet in the series, he attempts 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.”
Detail of a prison in Conti street, Budapest, Hungary. Many political prisoners were tortured and executed here. This was one of the ‘darkest’ prisons during the Rakosi matyas dictatorship.
Portrait of Ervin Ernst. He 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.
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.
In 2017 the series progressed significantly when Kovalovskzy began photographing political prisoners and recording their personal stories. “They, almost still in their teenage years, had been the darkest places of the criminal justice system of the time. Preserving their human dignity, they survived what was not possible to survive. They live privately, hidden from publicity, carrying this heavy historical burden for which they have 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. There is a time pressure for my work as there are fewer and fewer former prisoners who are still alive. This world is disappearing unnoticed, with 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. Being aware of the time constraints, my project was speeded up significantly.”
Detail of the dictator Rákosi’s villa in Szabó József Street, Budapest. 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.
Detail of Internment Camp in Kistarcsa.
Detail of Internment Camp in Kistarcsa.
Portrait of Ferenc Balogh. H 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.”
A dark cell carved into a rock on floor -3 in the fortress prison of Veszprém. Mostly the church persons were imprisoned here. Convicts were given only a sack stuffed with hay to use as a pillow.
Portrait of József Racz. He 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.
See more of Daniel’s work Here.
Tom Roche’s Black Blood 01-05-2018
An interview with Colin Pantall 10-08-2019
Stefania Orfanidou’s Pendulum 15-05-2018
Championing some of the most exciting and engaging photo stories from documentary and portraiture photographers, writers and journalists alike.
Support Then There Was Us with a membership subscription to our digital and printed magazine. Through becoming a member you not only receive our magazine but members subscriptions help to fund our Then There Was Us ‘Story Teller’ grants. We believe that when you support us, we can support others.
Join the conversation.
Join the Facebook group.