Hospital in the Rock, or Secret Emergency Military Hospital and Nuclear Bunker (Sziklakorhaz es Atombunker).
Enlightening, sobering, a testament to the human spirit
Besides palaces, churches and museums up on Buda Castle Hill in Budapest, there is another very unusual sight: The Hospital in the Rock. This is not on the hill, but actually carved into the hill.
Nath, as a nurse, really wanted to go to this, as a part of medical history, and it is fascinating, giving a whole other dimension to WW2, Nazi atrocities, and Communist times here in the city. Closed for quite a while, it opened as a museum to tourists in 2008. I’d say it’s a must-see sight for nurses, doctors, and people interested in WW2 and its aftermath, and the Communist presence in Hungary. It’s also just interesting for being a different kind of sight.
You have to take a guided tour that lasts about 75 minutes (not sure I’d want to be down there alone, potentially getting lost!). Tours are offered in Hungarian and English, and English tours are usually on the hour each hour. No photos are permitted in the actual hospital, but there are many boards in the waiting area with photos of some of the medical people involved and some of their procedures.
The entrance takes you into the hill into a large reception area and ticket desk, where we waited for our tour. First we watched a short movie with English sub-titles about the history of this place. Then we followed our guide, who was very knowledgeable and friendly, as she led us through the tunnels into room after room of almost perfectly preserved WW2 and 1960s-era medical supplies and equipment, most still in working order. She explained as we went along and answered many questions. Many life-like wax figures (supposedly more than 100) help to bring the various hospital rooms to life—a sick ward, an operating room etc. An incredible glimpse into the history of military surgery and nursing, as done under duress.
Then we moved to the fallout shelter, passing the decontamination showers, and saw primitive radiation detectors and communist propaganda directing comrades how to save themselves in case of capitalist bombs or gas attacks. In the bunker we also toured the various mechanical rooms that ventilated and provided water to this sprawling underground city. The fact that they always had water made this whole venture possible.
The exit is through the same reception area, with a small shop.
What is the History of the Emergency Hospital?
Underneath Buda Castle Hill is this sprawling 6-mile (10-km) labyrinthine network of
hospital and bomb-shelter corridors built during the 1930s in preparation for WW2. In the 1930s, on the orders of the Mayor of Budapest, an emergency surgical hospital was also built up within the cave system and connected by manual labor to the main tunnel system and fortified. The main system had been used by various inhabitants of the castle for many years, and was apparently part of a penal system in centuries past.
The hospital was actively used during WW2 until July 1945 and then during the 1956 Revolution to treat wounded civilians and soldiers. Between 1958 and 1962 it was expanded to withstand potential chemical and nuclear attacks during the Cold War.
The hospital saw its heaviest use during the WW2 siege of Budapest (1944-45), when the Red Army encircled Budapest, and was a place to process the wounded and dead. The dead were sent out of the hospital at night and buried in bomb craters. During this time there were many hardships, and we heard numerous stories about heroic efforts by different staff members. The hospital was without food or medicines at some points during the siege, with hospital staff having to recycle medical supplies by taking them from corpses and sterilizing them before reuse. Eventually, horses were brought in and killed for food. The facility was designed to treat 60–70 patients, but at one point it was being used to treat 600 wounded soldiers.
It was also used again during the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule. A heart-warming story from that time is the birth of a baby down here, and we see her recent picture in the reception area. After that, the hospital was repurposed as a nuclear bunker dedicated to keeping 200 doctors and nurses safe and available to treat the wounded. Nobody else ever tried to live in the bunker, except for a caretaker and his wife. Because of this, basically nothing was stolen or damaged and the hospital museum now has a great collection of anti-radiation kits, as well as some Soviet spying equipment, besides all the medical equipment.
It’s not often that a complete military hospital and bunker opens its gates to the public,
so we feel privileged to have seen this part of Hungarian history. Why it’s special is that it is not only a museum or a bunker planned for use in case of a conflict. It also witnessed WW2 and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution as an operational hospital.
An amazing experience. It’s almost surreal walking down under the ground around the operating theaters and wards with their machines and installations, imaging what it must have been like to either work down there or be a patient. The only downside I’d mention; the group was a bit large so we felt a little rushed and that sometimes we missed some of the guide’s explanations.
The temperature inside is a constant 15-18 C, so you may need to plan to have a warm sweater.
To find the hospital, turn your back to Matthias Church and walk down the street (Szentháromság utca) with the Plague Column behind you. At the end (basically at the other side of the hill), take the lift down or walk down the stairs and the entrance is a few steps away, carved into the rock.
It cost us 1800 forint per adult (about US$ 6.50), which we thought was quite reasonable. Nath would have got in for free with her nurse ID (if she’d known), but no teacher break here for Sonya. Open daily 10am-8pm, except Jan 1, Nov 1, Dec 24, 25, 31.
We bought a small book in the museum shop, called “The Short History of the Hospital in the Rock” by Gabor Tatai (ISBN 978-963-08-5005-6), which gives lots more details.