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The hospital in the rock

· In the Sziklakórház in Budapest testimonies of the years of the World War and the cold war ·

There are many ways of retracing a city's history in the attempt to gain a deeper knowledge of topical moments and important decisions. For Budapest a means of doing this has existed since 2008 and the sober testimony it brings back is particularly eloquent: the visit to Sziklakórház ( “hospital in the rock”). This underground site is carved out of the rock of Castle Hill, part of the complex of caves which the people of Buda traditionally used as cellars. An examination of the map of this network of rooms used during the Second World War, reveals the potential of this place which first served as a mental hospital in the war, during the siege of the city, and was later reopened for a few months in 1956 in the period of the Revolution.

Work in the hospital was gruelling during the siege of Budapest by the Red Army between 29 December 1944 and 13 February 1945, when Buda Castle was the stronghold of the harsh resistance of the German and Hungarian forces. The siege was interrupted on 11 February but it was all in vain: ninety per cent of the soldiers barricaded died on the streets of Buda. Extremely important in this period was the work of Dr Friedrich Born (1903-63), a Swiss diplomat and delegate of the International Red Cross of Hungary from May 1944 who was recognized as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Because of its tortuous itinerary, guided tours of the museum are obligatory (in Hungarian or English). The visit begins with the screening of a short film which explains the history of the place through its repertoire of images. Visitors then don coats lent by the museum: for almost two hours, in fact, they will be subjected to an average temperature of 15 degrees. The first part of the visit involves the well-reconstructed hospital. There are no windows, but with generators and a complex ventilation system the premises bring to life its tenacity and recall that it was free of charge in the fight, against time and with almost non-existent means, to provide a shelter and save lives. The second part of the tour displays instead the anti-atomic bunker, built during the Cold War and completed in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. This too makes a strong impact: even if visitors are acquainted with the history of the Cold War, those who were not yet born always find it surprising to approach its years of pulverized terror.

The visit to Sziklakórház is an important one. When you emerge from the museum – after handing in the damp old coat – the sun welcomes you, benevolent but knowing: it is the greeting of a city that sought to resist the horrors and cruelty of its jagged history which is of course  to a certain extent also our own.

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