Péter knew that his mind was drifting. He was hobbling down a bustling and lively street in Budapest, where everyone was going about their daily lives, laughing and chatting. Péter, though, remembered a very different Budapest. He remembered a time when most of these building were leveled, a time when troops patrolled the streets in a last ditch effort to keep the city. He remembered standing, a rifle in hand, as he watched the massive army of Comrade Stalin approach his beloved city… From one tyrant to another, he had thought. It was a time in his life when there was constantly a Nazi gun to his back, and a Soviet gun to his face.
Péter shook his head as he struggled up a flight of stairs. To this day, he had no idea what had made his government join that terrible war. He had still been a lad when he first saw the German troops move into the city, ready to force Hungary to stay in the war on the side of the Axis powers. He still clearly remembered how solemn his father had been as he watched the procession; everyone knew that there would be tough times ahead.
Péter had now made it to the top of the steps. Panting, he looked around at the beautiful buildings, still reminiscing about that terrible time long ago. A ghost from his past appeared as he gazed back down the steps; a tall, strong, young man, no more than twenty-five years old. This Péter had run up the stairs effortlessly, dodging wreckage and keeping a firm grasp on his rifle. Péter thought of how he had run without a moments glance around him, turning right at the top of the stairs and running down the road, to… the Hospital in the Rock. The place was a series of caves in Budapest that had been temporarily converted into a hospital, to treat the citizens who had been injured. During the Soviet siege, and later during the Hungarian revolution, the place had turned into a symbol of hope for the people of the city. Down the street, Péter had run, toward that overrun and under-resourced place. On he ran, to go and see her…
“Péter!” His name had been called, and young Péter had turned to find his best friend, István, running toward him. “Péter, what’s going on?”
Péter had almost forgotten that he had originally planned to meet István here. For the duration of the siege, they had made it a routine to meet by the hospital to see if anyone they knew had been injured, and to see if they could help in any way. He called out. “It’s Mária! She was hit during one of the Soviet bombardments!”
István stared blankly at him. “Péter, what does this mean? Is she alright?”
“I don’t know; I was just going to check on her.”
István spoke again, “Listen, you’ve got to tell me what this means! Are we still good?”
Péter replied forcefully, “I told you, I don’t know! Let’s both go and see her.”
As the two started running, István said, “The Germans are planning on blowing up the bridges and withdrawing later today. If there’s ever a chance to escape the city, it’d be then, that window of time when there is no army controlling this part of the city. It has to be today!”
“Look, you don’t think I know that? First things first, though, I need to see Mária.” The two friends instinctively slowed down and turned their heads away as a couple of Nazi troopers carried their injured comrade to the entrance of the hospital, yelling for a nurse, “Schnell! Schnell! Komm hier!” Quick! Quick! Come here! After the Germans had deposited their comrade and left the area, they walked into the hospital. It wouldn’t do Péter any good for German officers to see a conscripted soldier not on duty, fighting the war. Entering the compound, Péter led István through the narrow corridors, heart beating anxiously as he checked the different rooms for Mária. Nurses and doctors bustled past him, helping patients and carrying vials and tools that went beyond a simple soldier’s understanding. There had always been a lot of blood here, within these dark stone walls, but today Péter found the sight much worse than usual.
At last, he entered a room and immediately recognized the petite figure of his girlfriend. He rushed forward, looking helplessly at the unconscious body. She lay peacefully, breathing lightly, her eyes shut tight. She might have been sleeping, if it weren’t for the nasty gash in her abdomen. István murmured, “It looks like she was hit by debris caused by one of the artillery rounds. She looks pale; she’s lost a lot of blood.”
Péter nodded his head, tears forming in the back of his eyes. “Well, I guess that answers your question. I’m staying in Budapest.”
“Think about what you’re saying! You know how miserable things have been with the Germans, and you can bet that things aren’t going to improve once the Red Army comes! If you don’t leave today, then you’re sacrificing freedom— possibly for the rest of your life.”
Péter shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not leaving without Mária, and, obviously, she’s in no state to flee the country.” After a moment of silence, he said, “Besides, Budapest is my city. I’ve loved it since I was a little kid. It’d be hard to leave.”
“Budapest is not the same place it used to be, and it may not get back to that state ever again.”
“Well, what do you suggest I do, István? Just flee my home and my friends by myself? Abandon the girl I love simply because she was unlucky and got hit at the last minute? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself!”
“You’re not fleeing by yourself! What about your family? They’re still planning on fleeing today! They’ll need your help and protection if they’re going to successfully flee Hungary. Are you going to abandon them?”
“No, don’t say that! Ahhh, why did this happen? Why did any of this happen?” Péter felt like he was losing his mind. Why was any of this happening? Why did this war of dictators start, and why was Hungary caught in the middle? More importantly, why did people like him, innocent bystanders in these great conflicts, have to see their worlds torn apart before their very eyes? It just didn’t seem fair. Shaking slightly, he said in a broken voice, “I… can’t, István.”
Just then, though, a weak voice murmured, “Péter.” Péter whirled around and was stunned to see that Mária was awake. His heart melted as he looked into her bright blue eyes. Mária continued, “I… want to leave.”
Péter knelt down next to her and gently took one of her hands. It was icy cold. “I don’t know if you’re strong enough to make it. Is it worth that chance to you?”
“Look at me.” Péter looked into her blue eyes. There was plenty of exhaustion there, but he saw the vibrancy and strength that lay beneath that. In an instant he felt some of the doubt wash away from him. She continued, “I’m not going to be here to see the Red Army take this city. Are you coming with me?”
“Of course.” Everything’s going to be all right.
István said, “Hey, we need to start moving if we’re going to meet your family on time and take the path out of the city.”
Mária nodded and motioned to Péter. “Help me up.” Péter slung his arm around her slender waist and pulled her gently out of the Hospital bed. She still heavily leaned on Péter, but she was walking, and the determined look on her face made him see that no one was going to stop her. The three of them made their way through the desolate streets of Budapest.
Before long, they reached the place where they agreed to meet the rest of his family. Péter felt relieved when he saw his father and younger sister. Everything’s going to be all right. The thought floated through his mind again.
István pointed down the road. “Head down that way. After about ten minutes, you’ll reach a breach that the Germans aren’t defending anymore.”
“Why aren’t they defending it?”
“They’ve been in the process of withdrawing their army. They’ve already evacuated from this area of the city.”
Péter felt confused. “Are you not coming with us?”
István shook his head solemnly. “I know plenty of people that want to evacuate while they have the chance. I can help them find the way out, while there’s still time.”
“Does that mean you’re not getting out at all?”
István looked away for a moment. “No, I’m staying here. I’ll try seeing if I can do some good… while I can.”
A heaviness set in as Péter absorbed this information. He had been best friends with István for more years than he could count. He remembered running through the streets of the city as kids, acting without a care in the world. Seeing István in these war-torn days had been a reminder, one of the few reminders, of his life before all the bloodshed. The knowledge that he might never see the man again was almost more than he could handle. He couldn’t imagine a life without his best friend. Grabbing his friend’s shoulder, he said, “Are you sure?”
István was about to respond, when an explosion rocked the city. Both men whirled around and watched in horror as the bridge nearest them started collapsing. It was a final, desperate attempt by the Germans to keep the Soviets at bay; it was an attempt that everyone knew was futile. Soon, the Soviets would move into the city. Taking a deep breath, István said, “Yeah, I’m sure.” A terrible silence set in as the rubble finished falling into the Danube. Everyone knew that the small group of refugees needed to get moving soon. Turning around to face them, István shook Péter’s hand and said, “You need to start moving. Take care of yourselves.”
After a moment, Péter said, “You, too. Don’t make things too easy for Comrade Stalin.”
István gave him a bleak smile. “I plan on giving him hell. Listen, I’ll see you when the war ends, and all this blows over. Just don’t have too much fun until then.” Péter nodded, feeling choked with emotion. With that, the group started walking down the road, leaving a solitary figure in their wake…
…But that was sixty years ago. Smiling quietly, Péter struggled toward a bench and sat down. Now all that had to happen was for István to appear, and everything would be right again.
The Hospital in the Rock was originally a series of caves that ran underneath a part of the city of Budapest. Between 1944 and 1945, in the height of the Soviet siege during World War II, the caves were transformed into a hospital. Initially, it was set up to treat civilians; but also took in soldiers when other hospitals were overcrowded. Ultimately, the Hospital in the Rock treated thousands of people who had been injured in the fighting. About a decade later, the hospital was again opened to treat the wounded during the Hungarian Revolution. After that, it was converted into a top-secret nuclear bunker that would serve the residents of Budapest in the event of a nuclear conflict against the West. The place was declassified in the 2000s, and was converted into a museum. There are wax statues that stand in place of where the people would have been, and throughout the hour-long tour you can see snapshots of how life would have been in those turbulent times. In my trip to Budapest, I got the chance to visit this site, and I was spurred to write a short story about what I thought it would be like to live during the chaos of World War II.