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Uncovering Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock

Image of the main entrance at Budapest's Hospital in the Rock.

The Main Entrance at Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock, 1944 © hospitalintherock

Research Manager at IWM London, Emily Peirson-Webber, describes the history of Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock after a recent trip to the Hugarian capital.

During my recent trip to Budapest, I discovered the enigmatically named ‘Hospital in the Rock’. The site, which appears in the New York Times list of the top ten places to visit in the Hungarian capital and was nominated in the 2014 European Museum of the Year Awards, is still in its infancy as a visitor attraction – it was first opened to the public on a one-off basis in 2007.

The history of the Hospital in the Rock is compelling. Housed in a natural cave system spanning around 10km and located under Budapest’s Castle Hill (a 1km-long plateau situated 170m above the Danube); the site has been in use since the medieval period. However, it was during the Second World War that the caves took on a particularly important role for the city, due to their uniquely sheltered position.

In 1937 the Air Raid Alarm Control Centre “K”, which controlled the air raid sirens in the castle area, was the first room in the subterranean network to be appointed for military use. As the Castle District housed the Hungarian government offices, it was decided by the minister of the War Department and Karoly Szendy, the mayor of Budapest, that a working hospital should also be constructed within the existing cave structure.

Image of the Operating Theatre at Budapest's Hospital in the Rock, 1944 © hospitalintherock

The Operating Theatre at Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock, 1944 © hospitalintherock

Following the American air raids in May 1944 the hospital took on a central role in providing emergency aid to civilian casualties.

Later, during the siege of Budapest in 1944-1945, the hospital experienced overcrowding, due to high numbers of both military and civilian casualties. Several hundred people sought refuge in the hospital but sadly, due to the shortage of medical supplies (which necessitated the reuse of bandages) and the lack of fresh water, the death-rate soared during this period. Our guide told us that temperatures in the packed wards reached temperatures of over 30 degrees centigrade, which must have heightened the claustrophobic atmosphere.

Alongside the doctors, the hospital was run by Red Cross volunteer nurses, many of whom came from noble families. Countess Ilona Andrassy served as the Head Nurse of the facility and she recalled that, during her experience of the siege, “The volunteers were ceaselessly working. They went outdoors every morning to gather snow. That was the water supply of the hospital. It often happened that one or more of them never returned!”.

Image of Countess Ilona Andrássy's Red Cross ID (1942)

Countess Ilona Andrássy’s Red Cross ID, 1942 © hospitalintherock

Following the Soviet takeover of the city, the hospital was closed in July 1945. However, the site continued to be used after the war. In Soviet-controlled Budapest, the hospital took on a new role as a private medical research institute between 1945-1948, working on a vaccine against typhus, which was prevalent in post-war Eastern Europe. Following this in the 1950s the hospital became a “Top Secret Institution” under the code LOSK 0101/1.

The hospital was reinstated to its founding purpose during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and was opened to treat casualties of the uprising. In total seven children were born in the hospital during this period.

 The final chapter of the hospital’s evolution before its present-day status came between 1958 and 1962, when it was converted into a nuclear bunker. A new safety bypass system was built, along with a ventilation system and separate water supply. The walls are covered with posters from this time which detail how to treat exposure to nuclear agents. Between 1962 and 2007 the facility existed as a Cold War amalgam of hospital, nuclear bunker and civil defence forces store.

The present museum site can be visited via hour-long tours – a necessity as our guide explained how easy it was for visitors to get lost in the labyrinthine caves. The rooms are furnished with much original medical equipment alongside over 200 wax figures, which though somewhat clumsy by modern museological standards are deliberately retro-styled, to convey a better impression of how densely populated the wards would have been.

The Hospital in the Rock website includes a full history of the site, as well as an extensive digitised collection of photographs of the site, historic films, documents and memories of those who worked or were treated at the site.

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