Documentary Featuring Visual History Archive Testimony Ignites Debate over Accountability, Memory in Hungary

Sat, 04/16/2022 - 8:00am
Filmmaker Dániel Ács
Filmmaker Dániel Ács

A powerful documentary that hinges on USC Shoah Foundation testimony raises difficult questions about how Hungary memorializes victims of the Nazi occupation and confronts its own role in wartime atrocities.

Released last year, filmmaker Dániel Ács’ Monument to the Murderers recounts the controversy surrounding a monument erected in Budapest in 2005 to honor local victims of World War II.

The monument generated controversy from the get-go for multiple reasons. It featured a statue of a sword wielding Turul, an ancient mythical bird of prey that had been adopted by right-wing Arrow Cross brigades in WWII. It was located just steps from where Arrow Cross militiamen lined up and shot hundreds of people—most of them Jewish—and tortured and killed many at the neighboring Arrow Cross headquarters. And, to make matters worse, it was discovered that at least 20 Arrow Cross members—some proven to have actively participated in various killings—were among the 1,132 victims whose names were inscribed on the statue.

Simply put, in some cases the ‘victims’ memorialized by the statue were in fact the perpetrators.

Using witness testimony and interviews with contemporary historians, Ács reveals how, in the chaotic days before Soviet troops occupied Budapest in December 1944, mobs of Arrow Cross militia—ordinary working-class Hungarians from all walks of life—rampaged through the capital, arresting, torturing and then murdering thousands of purported enemies.

Among those rounded up was 19-year-old Hanna Szego (later Bokor), who along with her husband and 50 others, was taken to the Arrow Cross headquarters close to where the Turul monument now stands.

In the testimony she gave to USC Shoah Foundation in 1999 that features prominently in Monument to the Murderers, Hanna described what happened next. The group was lined up against a wall and subjected to a mock firing squad. All except Hanna were then tortured, she spared only because a militiaman noticed that she was eight months pregnant. The group was finally marched in their underwear in the freezing night to the banks of the Danube, where they expected, like others before them, to be shot into the icy river. 

But then in an unforeseeable twist, an Arrow Cross leader then pardoned the group “in the name of Jesus Christ” as it happened to be Christmas eve. After being marched on to the local ghetto, the group was told by ghetto residents that they were the first to have ever made it out of the Arrow Cross headquarters alive.

Monument to the Murderers, proved to be extremely popular upon its release—it has been viewed on YouTube more than 333,000 times—and, also extremely controversial.

Many celebrated the film’s honest and forthright depiction of the atrocities committed by the Arrow Cross militia; others actively contested the vital role ordinary Hungarians had played in massacres often blamed on the Nazis.

In an interview with Dániel Ács, the filmmaker said that none of the controversy following the film’s release came as a surprise.

“We Hungarians do not like to face our past,” Ács said. “Other societies might find it difficult too, but Hungarians are the champions of self-deception.”

Despite fevered political debates, right-wing protests, and calls for its removal, the Turul statue still stands in Budapest’s 12th district. USC Shoah Foundation is developing a virtual IWalk that will enable students and teachers to tour the area while watching and listening to witness testimonies—including that of Hanna Bokor—from the Visual History Archive. The IWalk is scheduled to be released this summer.

Dániel Ács sat down for an interview with USC Shoah Foundation to talk about his film.

What was your main motivation for producing the film?

Very often, when recalling the events of 1944 and 1945, Hungarians see themselves as collective victims, or even heroes. Erected in Budapest in 2005, the Turul monument uses symbols of military heroism to commemorate the victims of World War II.

The film intends to prove that that is a lie. There were indeed Hungarian heroes, many of whom also became victims, but our Hungarian ancestors were mostly perpetrators.

Nearly 330,000 people have watched Monument to the Murderers on YouTube alone. Has its popularity surprised you?

No. I had the feeling that many people would be interested in this story if we managed to tell it properly.

What has been the response to the film? How have people reacted?

The film sparked renewed discussions about the monument, about the mayor responsible for the monument—whose family is implicated in some of the crimes—

and about the imperfect way that our culture remembers and commemorates the past.

Most likely as a result of the film, some things started to change. An exhibition was opened in the district that explored the differing interpretations of the Turul bird, including as an Arrow Cross symbol. And the memorial itself is now being redesigned and its message reframed. The current mayor is trying to find a peaceful solution that will be acceptable to most people. We will see whether he succeeds. 

The film has upset some people, especially those on the right. Did you expect this?

Yes, I did. In Hungary our extreme right-wing traditions are strong and well-nurtured.

Moreover, in our country it is relatively easy to gain political capital by fueling hatred and propagating conspiracy theories, which has been the case with the monument.

Can you describe to people who haven't seen the film what happened on the banks of the Danube River after the Arrow Cross took control of Budapest?

By the time the Arrow Cross took control [in 1944], the Hungarian government and the German Nazis had already deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau the entire Jewish population from outside Budapest—an estimated 437,000 people. The Arrow Cross then started hunting down members of Budapest’s large Jewish community.

The Russians were already moving across Hungarian territory and began slowly closing in on the capital. As they did so, the Hungarian National Socialists stepped up their efforts to persecute their innocent Jewish compatriots, over a period of weeks marching several thousand people to the banks of the Danube River, forcing them to undress, and then shooting them into the icy water. They also organized mass killings next to the Turul monument on the Buda side of the river.

Talk about the testimony of Hanna Bokor. What did it bring to the film?

Hanna Bokor was a well-known university professor and international lawyer. What wasn’t widely known were the tragic episodes of her life that occurred during World War II.  For many people it was a shocking discovery. Hanna is the only person we know to have survived the brutality of the cruelest Arrow Cross unit and to have spoken about it in front of a camera. Hers is the only filmed account of what happened—she provides the key evidence. It is mostly because of her testimony that the film has been deemed to be credible and that the veracity of the content has not been questioned.

Are there other testimonies in the Visual History Archive that may bring more evidence of atrocities to light?

There are some testimonies that partly touch upon this same story. Someone heard about what had happened there, someone else mentions meeting one of the murderers. But there are no other testimonies taken with other survivors or witnesses of these events in the Visual History Archive, or even with perpetrators elsewhere.

Someone who watched your film said of the Arrow Cross killings: "It's a shocking reminder of what happens when average people—bakers, nurses, factory workers—turn into a bloodthirsty mob. Can you speak to that?

People often ask the question: “How can simple, ordinary people start murdering their neighbors?” Author Gábor Zoltán, who wrote a novel titled Orgy, said the question isn’t why people become brutal mass murders. The question is why it happens so rarely. He believes that mankind is fundamentally disposed to carrying out mass murder, and that groups like the Arrow Cross were simply waiting to be themselves in a completely uninhibited way. I myself do not know the answer to these questions.

USC Shoah Foundation is planning an IWalk for the neighborhood. Why is such a thing important?

Many people, who live or work in the neighborhood or went to school there, wrote to me after watching the film. They say they now look differently at the streets, buildings and former hospitals where the tragic events took place. The neighborhood has changed for them. It is not just the Turul monument that reminds people of the past. It is also the buildings: 5 Németvölgyi Street is not just another neighborhood building any more. It’s the former Arrow Cross headquarters where innocent people were tortured to death. The hospital on Maros Street is not just a simple outpatient clinic any more, it’s the site where a mass murder took place. It is important that people see these spaces for what they are, as well as the monument.

What next for the film? How do you plan to bring it to a wider audience?

I hope that it will be screened in schools. I would be pleased with that.

Hanna Bokor

Hanna Bokor’s testimony, given to USC Shoah Foundation in 1999, features prominently in the Hungarian documentary Monument to the Murderers. Here she describes what happened after she was arrested—at the age of 19 and eight months pregnant—by Arrow Cross militia in Budapest.

Learn more about another documentary that uses footage from the Visual History Archive. The Last Days, an Academy Award®-winning documentary, follows the lives of five Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust. Now streaming on Netflix and remastered on Blu-ray.