Hospital in the Rock and nuclear bunker in Budapest
Most of the visitors strolling in the castle area of Buda probably don’t know that beneath their feet in the depths of the castle hill is a strange and completely different world.
A network of caves extends at a depth of 10 to 20 metres and was used in Hungary’s turbulent past as a hospital, nuclear and civil defence bunker, air raid warning centre and headquarters of the German SS. wieninternational.at took part in a guided tour of the Hospital in the Rock, today a museum.
A visit to the Hospital in the Rock offers a unique underground journey back in time. The guided tour goes from the admissions office and first aid department to the various wards, operating theatres, kitchens, machine room and nuclear bunker. All equipment – from the electrical ventilation system to the original medical appliances – have been preserved in their original form. Altogether the tour offers visitors an insight into the history of a strange world under the ground.
Hide-and-seek under the castle
Budapest’s castle hill conceals a partly natural and partly man-made system of cellars that was used for centuries as a simple wine cellar and grain store. In some places it is even possible to enter the depths of the hill from the basement of a private house and to emerge from a completely different house. The network was already used for military purposes during the Turkish occupation. After the decline of wine growing the cellars became of lesser importance and were not rediscovered until the 1930s. For five years from 1939 they were enlarged to form a hospital and air raid shelter with bunkers.
Budapest has been attacked sixteen times in its history, but most of the objects and remnants are from the siege during the Second World War. The battle of Budapest in the winter of 1944–5 between the Russian Red Army and the German Wehrmacht was the second longest of the war. Thousands of wounded soldiers had to be tended in the Hospital on the Rock, which in 1945 was the defender’s last functioning hospital.
Today the situation during the war is reproduced in its original surroundings with the aid of wax figures, including one of the Budapest Red Cross delegate Friedrich Born, hospital director Dr. István Kovács and SS-General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch. The latter was in charge of the defence of the encircled Hungarian capital. His headquarters were in a bunker built for the Hungarian government in the neighbouring rock passages. After Hitler had declared Budapest a fortress to be defended to the last brick, he was unable to decide whether to attempt to break out or to surrender, forcing the hospital staff to deal with the consequences of the fierce fighting. “For weeks they were without running water because the German units had accidentally destroyed the only water supply line in the castle district,” relates tour guide Orsolya Bedő.
Although the hospital, which was under the protection of the Red Cross, was originally designed for 300 patients, 650 to 700 patients had to be admitted during the battle. Some forty doctors and nurses from János Hospital were assisted by civilians in looking after the Hungarian soldiers. As there were times during the siege when none of the hospitals in Budapest had electricity, the Hospital in the Rock was the only place where x ray pictures could be taken. The museum also has other unique medical appliances. “Our grey anaesthetic appliance ‘Morpheus’, which stands unobtrusively in the corner, is a genuine film star,” says the tour guide proudly in the operating theatre. “A scene from the film ‘Evita’ was shot here in the hospital and Madonna herself was put to sleep with ‘Morpheus’.”
During the 1956 uprising, when the civilian population took to arms against the Communist Party government and Soviet occupiers, the Hospital in the Rock was reopened and used again for two months. The uprising, which began peacefully on 23 October, ended after fierce street fighting with the occupation by the Soviet Army on 4 November. The underground hospital not only tended the wounded but also saw the birth of a girl and six boys. Bags of milk powder donated by the USA can still be seen on the hospital shelves.
Greatest secrecy during the Cold War
“The manual siren in our nuclear bunker was recently operated by Robert de Niro,” says the tour guide. During the Cold War the cellar system was made ready by the civil defence authority for a possible attack with nuclear or chemical weapons. The work was carried out in the greatest secrecy and the hospital became something of an urban legend: “Private entrances were bricked up and the inscriptions on the main entrance removed. In 1950 the system was given the code name LOSK 0101/1. It was enlarged in 1958 and 1962 and used as a civil defence store. For decades it stood by in the event of a conflict. A janitor and his wife were hired to take care of it. Only they and a handful of employees of János Hospital knew that it was still fully functional. The top secret classification was not removed until 2002.
A unique underground journey back in time
The Hospital in the Rock was opened to the public in 2007. It is not a simple museum but a testimony to human suffering. Doctors who worked there, patients treated there or persons born there during the 1956 uprising regularly visit the museum today. The rooms and equipment not only tell a fascinating story but are also part of the history of the site itself. Recommended, not only on hot summer days.