The largest bunker in Transcarpathia hadn’t been used for military purposes, however… it is open now.
A few years ago in the mountain village of Transcarpathian Verkhnia Hrabivnytsia locals would have been surprised to see a tourist. Now, without any hesitations, they will show you how to get to the main attraction – the largest in Ukraine bunker of the Second World War times, the one that belonged to Árpád Line of defense. Thanks to local enthusiasts, an underground fortification is open to thousands of guests and still keeps its secrets.
During your first visit, the bunker is nothing if not impressive. The scale stuns you, the quality of construction surprizes: concrete walls are still in excellent condition, ventilation and drainage are working. A battalion, which is up to five hundred soldiers, could have been in the bunker at once. Today, they call it “Carpathian Metro” as a joke. After all, tunnels at a depth of about 50 meters visually resemble an underground railway. By the way, along all the “streets” there were laid rails for cars.
The bunker at Velyka Hrabivnytsia is the biggest fortification of the defensive network named Árpád Line (in honor of the legendary Ugric chief, who had united the tribes 1100 years ago and founded the state). Hungarian troops were building a large-scale fortification network in the Carpathians during 1939-1944 in order to defend themselves against the Soviet Army. It extends over 600 kilometers from the Dukla Pass in the west to the Yablunitsky Pass in the east. This line is not unbroken, it has several ramifications. The Árpád Line is a complex of defensive structures that included trenches, foxholes, pillboxes, minefields, anti-tank traps, and bunkers. Some of them survived in the Carpathians. This place was the engineering’s state-of-the-art at that time – the largest and the best-preserved bunker.
Ivan Sobran was our guide on that tour. It was him who drew on these walls question marks: several “spurs” of the building are not opened yet. Experts advise not to explore them without the participation of deminers. And this is just one of the bunker’s secrets. Although Ivan probably knows about the bunker more than anybody else, he definitely has more questions to this place than there are question marks on its walls. Actually, the very fact of its construction was a secret for quite a long time…
The construction of the bunker had begun in October 1939. From the beginning of the Second World War, Hungarians began to strengthen their defense against the Soviet troops. So, fortifications in Verkhnia Hrabivnytsia belonged to the first stage of the Árpád Line construction. In general, until 1944 fortifications of the Árpád Line were also built in Transylvania. Back then those lands also belonged to Hungary, as well as Transcarpathia.
The Árpád Line’s fortifications were built at the key points: on the roads, on the passes, where heavy machinery could cross the Carpathians. The Arpad line had 96 strongholds. The most strategic ones: Uzhotsky that was blocking the road to Uzhhorod; Synevyr-Kolochava-Ust-Chorna blocked Khust direction; Yasinya-Rakhiv-Yablunetsky pass was on the way to Rakhiv; the stronghold near Volovets at Zanka station “locked” the railway that was built during the Austro-Hungarian Empire and operates till nowadays.
The defensive structures of this area, including the bunker, were intended to control the road by which we’ve reached Hrabivnytsia. We drove off the international highway next to the Nyzhni Vorota. Even now there is a checkpoint there. By the way, in 2016, there was held a blocking action. Its aim was to interrupt the passage of Russian trucks through the territory of Ukraine. So-called “Bear’s blockade” targeted the strategic, on a European scale, route. Now the road through Velyka Hrabivnytsia is called “Old”. Back in the 1940s, “Lviv-Budapest-Vienna” was the main cross-border road through the Carpathians.
Grand, expensive and thought-out Árpád Line, despite all its scale, as well as forces and resources spent on its construction, didn’t complete its mission. In the end, Soviet troops bypassed the fortification network through Romanian in 1944. In August 1944, the Romanian king announced the surrender and gave the right of passage to Soviet troops. Thus the Second and the Third Ukrainian fronts in a few days appear near the towns of Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza. Then, by the beginning of September, the 4th Ukrainian Front is going through the Ukrainian part of Carpathians, and the 1st is going through the Slovak part. According to the plan, this operation should have been completed within a few days, provided the troops get through the Dukla pass. However, they’d stopped there for almost a month. Serious fighting was on-going, including the tank battles. There were a lot of losses.
Another part of the Arpad line, where strategic fights took place, is Rakhiv. The rest of the strongholds were used to a lesser extent. The battles in the Carpathian Mountains lasted until the end of October 1944. Fighting in the bunker area near Verkhnia Hrabivnytsia had lasted for two weeks. In late October, a capitulation was signed. The route was opened at the end of October 1944, and on October 28, 1944, Soviet authority was spread over the Transcarpathia (although the process of joining it will be officially formalized later). At the same time, in Western Ukraine, military operations continued until 1954, when the Soviet authorities report on the elimination of the last UPA group. Therefore militaristic objects were better to be destroyed. Certain parts of the Árpád Line were blown up by Hungarians then the NKVD will take care of it. The bunker in Velyka Hrabivnytsia was undermined after the war. They placed the explosive at the exits (there were four fire points there), however, they did it, so to speak, quite successfully. Without causing damage to the structure, they’ve only “sealed” it for years. Inside, at the very end of the bunker, on the far street, there is also a blown up area. However, how and when it happened hasn’t been investigated yet. It’s suggested that it could have happened in the Soviet era.
There was no access to the bunker right until 1968. As soon as the well-known events had started in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet authorities decided to restore the fortification at the border. Border guards of the Mukachevo detachment took care of this. They arranged it as a military complex, and until 1991, the upper mentioned bunker was listed as a “reserve command post” in the official documents. According to Ivan Sobran, in fact, it was a bomb shelter. Already in the 1980s some of the locals managed to get into the bunker. In the early 1990s, the military handed over the bunker, so to speak, out of sight, to the village council. People with welding cutters had done a great job there. They destroyed all the utensils, including metal beds and hospital equipment. “They’ve stolen all the furniture, plumbing (by the way, there were shower cubicles), in short, they took everything. The last theft was the door,” says Ivan.
Further, the story of the magnificent building was sad. In the spirit of 90s, it was full of a gamble: the bunker became just a dumping ground, except for the period when one entrepreneur tried… to cultivate mushrooms there. The business was going bad, so the largest bunker of the Second World War in Ukraine was littered again. The changes came in 2012 when young locals leased it in order to turn the military object into a tourist destination. They cleaned up the bunker. Avoiding serious interferences, they slightly plastered the walls. Stairs and the wooden floor were restored. They’ve begun to manage this territory, invite guests here. Simultaneously they were studying the history of this place, the Arpad Line and the whole World War II. The Hungarians inspired them. Tour buses arrived here, and tourists with flashlights were walking among the piles of garbage and looking at this construction.
“When we’ve started to make tours here, we could spend almost a month without tourists. However, now there are many visitors and not only Ukrainians,” says Ivan Sobran. Now you have to book a tour in advance: the bunker in Verkhnia Hrabivnytsia has become a famous tourist attraction of Transcarpathian region. Of course, many groups come from Hungary to see the object of their military history and an outstanding example of military engineering of that time. Half a kilometer wide area is open for excursions, according to these parameters the bunker in Verkhnia Hrabivnytsia is the largest sight of the Second World War available for tourist. According to Ivan Sobran, this place must be a kilometer and a half long – this is what Hungarian historians say. Although it is still impossible to have documentary evidence of this – archives on fortifications are still classified.
Are there any plans to open the bunker’s branch? “Our plans are like those that Hitler had,” smiles Ivan, he’s in love with the European military history. “However, we need investments. There is a plethora of mysteries. There are entire sealed “streets”, made in Soviet times. Of course, we didn’t use geolocator, it is too expensive. However in 2014, we scanned it with echolocation device, we found several sealed cavities. The length of these ramifications is about 25 meters. Although it should be noted that device shows only a straight line. At one time, the head of the village and the entrepreneur who rented the bunker, warned that it’s better not to go there, because it could be mined. By the way, once a train went through Hrabivnytsia, so there may be the gold of the Third Reich!”
In 1939, the fact that the bunker won’t be used for military purposes is, of course, unknown. So soldiers and engineers are settling in the mountain village, despite the efforts to keep this construction in secret. It was carried out exclusively by visiting military men. However, some information still leaked. After all, for 5 years they were contacting with locals. They were eating, visiting a local tavern, flirting with girls. Even the weddings had happened along with childbirths… According to the legend, in Verkhnia Hrabivnytsia in 1939 “they began to build a hospital”, but how can you hide from the entire village while digging at a distance of three hundred meters from it? Land works of such scale and an extraordinary amount of concrete – it is unreal…
“One old local told us that he was able to visit the bunker after the end of the war. He said that in the barracks – it is that room with impressive acoustics – a lot of uniforms, ammunition, and shoes were left. There, in the warehouse area were boxes with crackers, bagels, stew, and other canned goods. In bottles, there was schnapps, rum, cognac. There was left a small number of weapons, including shells. By the way, exactly near this gun room, are situated those concrete seals. The old man remembers many small bottles with medical alcohol left in the hospital. He remembered it quite well because back then he tried it for the first time. He says that it had a pleasant smell. He and his friends were 16 back then. Boys hadn’t been drafted either to Hungarian or to Soviet Army yet. They were there right after the fighting was over. The man thinks that Soviet soldiers intentionally let them go there in order to check whether there were trip wires or mines. It went fine. My grandmother, who was over 90 years old, also recalled that times. She told me that Hungarian soldiers went dancing and even performed in an amateur theatre in the village,” says the guide.
“Here, in this barracks, 150 people could sleep at the same time. The experts calculated the number of beds depending on the area of the premises. Such facilities, as well as submarines, have a mandatory watch method: one part of them works, the other protects, others are resting. Together with doctors, officers and engineers, it could easily accommodate up to 500 people. However, in times of hostilities, there’ve never been so many people there. In those two fighting weeks, there were only 50-60 people left. And, finally, capitulation. That is, this bunker didn’t change the course of the war, the politics did it,” says Ivan Sobran.
He says: the Árpád Line was equipped, using the project of Maginot line (a system of French fortifications on the border with Germany, built in 1929-1934 it was constantly improving up to 1940, it’s length was about 400 km). This fortification system played almost no role in defense, so after its detailed examination Hungarians stopped working on the Árpád Line. “However, this bunker was built, and in this very enormous scale. Why? So far, nobody could answer this question. Why exactly here, in Verkhnia Hrabivnytsia village, such a grandiose building was built? Yes, there’s a good vision from here and it’s possible to fire at three kilometers range. Not everywhere in the Carpathians there is such a difficult terrain. However, instead of this construction, they could build several hundred small defensive objects.
The main function of the bunker is to hide, from shellings, aviation, and bombings. Here we have a whole complex: barracks, a hospital, weapons, warehouses, supplies, all the communications. There is information that the military formation could last here for two months autonomously. But this had never happened. 5 years of work and investment of extraordinary resources, the scale of which is hard to imagine resulted in such a short stay in the epicenter of hostilities… By the way, I have not tried yet to examine the possible cost estimate. It’s only clear that it was enormous. Now we hope for new interesting information: we expect that Hungarians will give us something from their archives for study. Not so long ago it became known that they found documents about this construction in Hungary. So far, we only had information from memories, with no documentary evidence. There are two versions: the papers are destroyed because the area where these archives were located was bombarded heavily; the other version is that Soviet troops transferred them from Budapest to Moscow. However, Hungarian historians suggest that some of them may be in the archives, but they are military documents, thus they’re classified. Even in the books of Hungarian historians who study the Árpád Line and devote their lives to this topic, there is no mention of a bunker.”
The guide is showing us a room, or rather a niche in the wall, it is former gun storage. Rifles and ammunition were kept on the shelves there. Our guide complains – they don’t have too much of the exhibits: “If 20 years ago we had opened the museum here, then we might have no free place. However, the “business” of collecting scrap metal was blooming at that time, so not only the bunker but all the Carpathians were literally “looted”. Over the past 10 years, black archaeology has progressed quite abruptly, now it’s hard to find at least something: they dug everywhere in the mountains, knowing that there was an important defensive position here. In Kolochav that is in Mizhgirshchyna, one bunker was also opened 5 years ago. Locals brought from their homes many exhibits, so you can see the ammunition and even the weapons of various states there. We were looking on our own and, I believe, there should be more items in order to attract people. We have negotiations with the Hungarian Museum of Military History, maybe we’ll come up with something.” Going over the corner, we see something unusual for a military tourism: now, for the fun of tourists at the command post, you can… taste the Transcarpathian wine.
We’re going further, to the bigger premises. “The bunker that is built in a rock is sandstone, not granite. They were digging using the “miner’s method”. With the help of machinery, with drills and perforators, they applied state-of-the-art technology for that time. The bunker is waterproofed, and plaster is reinforced there. As you can see, these rooms are three meters long, and the concrete walls are one meter wide. Therefore they were digging out five meters cavity. The army never lacks a “black” labor force. We have such units that are called “shtrafbat” (penalty battalion), and my friend has translated their name from Hungarian, it is: “battalion of unreliable soldiers” – these are those people whom you won’t trust the rifle. However, a shovel will be just fine for them. Engineers received a very high salary for that time. Old people recall it because engineers were renting dwellings in the village. By the way, there is a memory about it: the elder man told that one day a tenant came from work and set on fire a lot of papers. In the morning he’d left. Soon the Soviet army came and locals were evacuated. Not for a long time, only for a couple of weeks. The first to return were the most energetic ones – teenagers. They were interested in seeing what they were building there; they were the first who got into the bunker.”
“I came here for the first time in 2013. Every next excursion became more interesting than the previous one, and I’m still learning, of course. It happens that guests tell us something new and interesting. Recently the tourist, who is a guide himself, told me that there should be a specially selected for this place soldiers. After all, either very disciplined people or, on the contrary, the most desperate ones could serve there for a long time and in such conditions. Kyiv researchers told us about concrete and the origin of the structural elements, it was found that part of the equipment was from Germany, for example, these fittings. Something was brought from Romania. Recently I found out that already in 1988 schoolchildren were brought here as a part of a school trip,” says Ivan.
He adds: “Yes, this building is stunning. After all, Hungarians lost the war as they were Hitler’s allies. The bunker didn’t play an important role, even during those two weeks, when there were battles. They were filming a documentary about the Árpád Line here and it was finished it in a very interesting way by the phrase of Napoleon: ‘No matter how ingenious was the idea of the war; it would become absurd if the war is lost.’ And it happened that way. However, now people are coming here, and they are interested. And we are interested as well. Moreover, there are so many secrets here and they are waiting to be solved,” says Ivan Sobran in one of the tunnels, on the wall of which there is a question mark…
By Alla Khayatova
Photo by Serhiy Hudak