Invaded by Turks, annexed by Austria, ruled by Fascists, occupied by the Soviets, Budapest has developed a personality all its own. It’s a combination of pride, stubbornness and accommodation, tempered by history and tradition.
Unique Budapest is still visible in the buildings – ravaged or restored – the little parks with monuments to dead heroes, its churches, the shop signs in Magyar – with its sprinkling of “zeds” and accent marks– and even in the old-fashioned good manners of the people you meet.
But perhaps the most incredible souvenir of a time gone by is the “Hospital in the Rock,” in the caves under the Buda hill; this installation must be seen to be believed. And even then, you may have trouble coming to terms with its extraordinary history. Its very existence was a secret until 2002, referred to in official papers only by the code name LOSK 0101/01.
When the top-secret installation was declassified in 2002, it was renovated as an exhibition of hospital life during the three month siege in the winter of 1945. Its still-functioning control and engine rooms are displayed along with a collection of period medical equipment (some of which was used in the film Evita.) An underground hospital for 200, it was fitted out in 1944 as the battle for Budapest raged on the hill above. A daily average of more than 700 casualties – soldiers and civilians – was cared for. At certain times, a shortage of water for sterilisation meant that bandages were taken from the dead and used directly on the living.
Inevitably, infection added to the numbers of deceased who were removed nightly for burial in bomb craters. The hospital served again during the failed Hungarian uprising in 1956 and was then officially closed. Only a handful of people would have known that it had since been updated to serve as a nuclear bunker during the Cold War. When warned of an attack, 50 designated doctors, nurses and technicians from St Janos hospital were to have taken shelter in the hospital which is, on average, 11 metres under ground; their mission was to treat the civilians who survived exposure to the bombing.
A janitor couple, Mr and Mrs Mohacsi, lived in an underground apartment whose only natural light came from a small window at street level near the present entrance on Lovas Street. They kept the hospital operational during its secret period from 1970-2004. The husband was in charge of ensuring that the ventilation, sanitation, power generators and medical equipment was in working order, his wife cleaned the rooms and changed the bed sheets every two weeks. The authorities closely monitored the couple’s secret work, with note taken of anyone with whom they had contact. Today, the wards, operating rooms, communications centre, military headquarters and nuclear de-contamination areas are animated with lifelike wax figures. The museum claims to be the largest waxworks exhibition in Central Europe. It is surely one of the most unsettling and unforgettable museums anywhere.