Following World War II, the infamous iron curtain of Soviet control fell across Central and Eastern Europe, including the country of Hungary. Matyas Rakosi, a hardline Stalinist, came to power in communist Hungary and maintained control through terror and oppression.
Under Rakosi’s leadership, an estimated 2,000 people were executed and 100,000 imprisoned, with nearly half being sent to forced-labor camps. Due to horrific conditions at these Gulag-style camps, many political prisoners died. An additional (estimated) 15,000 people, mostly upper-class, were deported from cities to villages in the countryside where they were forced into hard labor. They were labeled enemies of the state and their property was confiscated.
Béla Krasznay was one such political prisoner. He had a military background and came from a family of landowners with a history of military service. He was arrested and charged with conspiracy, a commonly used trumped-up charge for political prisoners.
Krasznay was interrogated by the hated AVO (the communist secret police) and then transferred to the notorious and highly secretive Recsk. As one of the first prisoners, Krasznay was forced to help build the camp. Modeled on the Soviet Gulag, Hungary had about 30 such hard labor camps for prisoners. But the very existence of Recsk, Hungary’s worst political prisoner camp was one of the communist regime’s deepest secrets. Located in the northeastern region of the country, Recsk was often called a concentration camp due to its atrocious conditions and treatment of prisoners.
An estimated 1,300 people were imprisoned in the Recsk camp between 1950 and 1953, including world-famous Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy. It is estimated that a tenth of the prisoners died as a result of the horrific conditions, but very little is known for sure.
Krasznay survived three years of captivity at Recsk, and when it was closed, was transferred to another prison to finish out his term. When he was finally set free, he was unable to get any kind of meaningful work, in spite of his university degree.
The infamous Recsk camp was eventually shut down by Imre Nagy, Hungary’s prime minister following Stalin’s death in 1953. Recsk was destroyed in 1954, but has since been rebuilt as a memorial.
In October 1956, Hungarians rose up against Soviet occupation and communist policies. Bela Krasznay gladly joined in the fight. The Revolution lasted from October 23-November 4, including the establishment of a free government. However, the euphoria and freedom was short-lived and on November 4th the Russians returned to crush the Revolution. Krasznay was once again imprisoned.
He served a total of eight and a half years in Hungarian communist prisons.
Krasznay, now 92, is the Head of the Recsk Alliance of former prisoners. To date, only 19 Recsk survivors remain alive, but he is working to ensure that young people know the history of communism and of Recsk in particular. The Alliance, established by Recsk survivors, is still working to find out how many people were interned in Recsk as well as the other prison camps in Hungary during the 1950s.
The forced labor camp of Recsk has become a haunting symbol of the communist regime’s cruelty. But survivors like Bela Krasznay are a lasting inspiration of how and what people can overcome.