Alllll the way back in 2020, a friend and I decided to adventure through northeast Hungary to visit the lovely vacation town of Miskolc [sounds like “meesh-kolts” in English], before making our way to the gorgeous city of Eger [sounds like “ay-guh” in English] and of course the wine region known as the Valley of the Beautiful Women before meandering our way through the Bükki National Park toward Budapest. On the journey west, we stopped at a virtually unknown site deep within the Hungarian countryside — Recsk Nemzeti Emlékpark (Recsk National Memorial Park).
I was unsure what to expect or if we were even in the right location as my friend carefully drove up the country road leading higher into the protected Mátrai region toward Lahóca mountain. I had found very little information on the former labor camp, the memorial, or the area itself. An Atlas Obscura entry of three short paragraphs overviewed a brief history of one of Hungary’s gulags, a forced labor and imprisonment system concealed in secrecy. Similar to our journey around the former Soviet town of Szentkirályszabadja, a location chosen for its spot off the beaten path, the Recsk [sounds similarly in English “het-chk”] internment camp up in the Mátra mountains was selected for its isolation and ability to produce labor for the state.
We saw a sign to the right pointing us down a dirt road toward the former forced labor camp. Unbeknownst to us, if we would have continued straight just a few more minutes, the path would have led us to the one of the most important mining operations in Hungary’s history, a site of not only the largest gold ore and copper deposits in the country, but also a place of terror and remembrance, where culture, history, and geology intersect with human geography, environmental degradation, and memory.
The history and importance of the Recsk-Lahóca mine and the Recsk forced labor camp intersect with politics, culture, extraction, and labor over time; these stories are shared through accounts of survivors, but also in the physical landscape of the space.
I’ll try to not meander here but an understanding of the memorial at Recsk also requires an overview of the mining operations both historically and presently, along with how memory narratives are shaped in Hungary. Incredible work by Barbara Bank, Livia Gyarmathy, Géza Böszörményi and the State Security Historical Archive to collect information, research, and survivor narratives helped tell this story, along with a breathtaking gallery of forced labor camp sites, survivors, and their families by Daniel Kovalovszky.
Where are we?
Located 120 kilometers (74 miles) from Budapest and up in the Mátra mountains, the forced labor camp near the town of Recsk was established in 1950. The 1,500 – 1,800 people imprisoned here worked long hours in the nearby mine, linking the past and present of this industry to one of the most secretive internment camps in Hungarian history.
I am not a geologist in any way (literally anything other than the 1993 release of Jurassic Park? no thanks) so forgive my attempts at summarizing the geological features and importance of this mine and quarry. Large amounts (some of the biggest in the world) of copper, gold, and silver are located in the sulphide mineral deposits in Recsk-Lahóca; estimations propose that the underground deposits include 5.6 million tons (12 billion pounds) of copper and 4 million ounces of gold. Non-metallic minerals mined here include Miocene andesite-ryholite rock and Oligocene clay deposits.
Markhót first discovered copper and silver in the area in 1763, but the push for exploration ramped up in 1850, with the mine in Lahóca officially opening in 1852 by the Parád-Mátrai Mining Company. A boom in small-scale mining before WWI led to the Hungarian government purchasing the mine in 1926, with the most production taking place after the war period; copper and gold were located near the surface and were mined until the deposits were depleted by 1979. While in production, the mine produced fifty five kilometers (34 miles) of open stopes, drifts, and levels. During this time, large amounts of rock waste dumps and leeching from grained flotation tailings were also exposed to the environment, along with greater flooding due to increased erosion and the dumping of mine waste.
In Hungary, as is with many other Central and Eastern European countries, the history of the past 150 years can be seen in the landscape; Recsk is no different. Industrialization and mining directly impacted the country’s economy, its landscape, and culture. For decades, the Recsk-Lahóca mine was the main producer of copper for Hungary. Similarly to other locations with a history of mining — including the Hungarian town of Oroszlany and American Appalachia — many in the small town of Recsk hold on to their history and culture, including the recent opening of a mining exhibition in the community center.
History of the Forced Labor Camp in Recsk:
During WWII, Hungary was aligned with Nazi Germany and after the war ended, the country fell under Soviet occupation. While the Soviet Union controlled and utilized avenues of propaganda and force, the communist party was unable to gain control through direct election within the country; as a result, the Soviets implemented a puppet government in 1947 and utilized the ÁVH (Államvédelmi Hatóság, the secret police) to maintain control. In 1949, Mátyás Rákosi was named the ruler of the “people’s republic” in Hungary, ushering in one of the harshest regimes in Europe at the time.
In the spring of 1950. Rákosi began national raids and arrests started in July. Hundreds of forced labor camps were established across Hungary.
The Soviet position regarding Hungary was to conquer the space — the imperial mindset of occupation — and to use the country for political and economic means. Utilized as a buffer against western expansion, industrialization and extraction operations were implemented across the country — including expansion of the aluminum oxide plant outside of Ajka — a policy also enacted in Recsk.
On July 19th, 1950, the Recsk forced labor camp opened in the Mátra mountains near the Recsk-Lahóca mine. A former sheep pasture owned by the Barkóczy family, the Recsk forced labor camp’s structure and operations were similar to the camps (“gulags”) developed by the Soviet Union; Rodolf Garasin, known as the “Father of the Hungarian Gulag System” was specifically sent to Hungary to implement the forced labor labor camp structure across the country. In 1951, his decision to deport prisoners to camps for economic gain was enacted, policies that also included the transition from using the term “slave labor” to “employment of arrested persons in productive work”.
Operated by the Protection Authority (ÁVH), the camp imprisoned roughly 1,500 – 1,800 people without legal justification, mainly opponents of the political regime including artists, intellectuals, and members of the clergy. While the Secretariat of the MDP initially hoped to imprison up to 4,500 people at Recsk, the water supply at the camp was only designed for up to 1,300 people. The first to arrive were 35 social democrats from Pest, who made the journey in a cattle car before being forced along the hourlong walk to the camp from Recsk station. These men built the barracks, barbed wire fence, and the watchtower that eventually became the forced labor camp. Later, prisoners from the Kistarcsa internment camp were also brought to Recsk.
“Regarding our alleged crimes, more than a thousand residents of the camp were divided into different groups. The larger groups included the social democrats – mostly old trade unionists, strike leaders who could not get used to the fact that they had to serve the interests of the state instead of the workers; old staff officers – who defected to the Russians in 1944 and imagined that they could organize an independent Hungarian army; functionaries belonging to different parties, (…) kulaks who wanted to disappear so that they could take their land, and poor peasants who were appointed as kulaks in order to disappear; so-called bad workers who were taken away to frighten their co-workers, and the best workers of the larger factories who were taken away to frighten the workers even more.”Excerpt from György Faludy’s memoir My Happy Days in Hell (1962).
The forced labor camp eventually included eight wooden barracks that housed the imprisoned population. In December 1950, Recsk also included a separate punishment barrack, known as No. 5, where imprisoned men were tortured and isolated. Controlled by internal and external guards instructed to “don’t just guard them, hate them”, those imprisoned here were forced to work 10-14 hour days of back-breaking labor at the nearby quarry with little food and basic equipment, year-round. Survivor accounts by Géza Böszörményi and Ferenc Madaras state that hot water baths were only allowed once a month and moldy bread rations were transported into the camp on the same trains that brought manure. Hospital barracks were built in the spring of 1951, but provided little care for ailing imprisoned people.
By winter 1951, overwork, freezing conditions, and guard brutality caused an increase in deaths at the camp. Historians believe at least 109 people died here. Imprisoned people killed at the camp were buried on site; even today, the mass grave has never been found.
In 1952, a lower camp was established just east of Recsk. Here, around 160-170 imprisoned people were forced to clear the marshy landscape to construct a building designed to receive shipments of stone via the railway (also built by forced labor) from the upper camp.
Those imprisoned here suffered unimaginable horror: malnutrition, exhaustion, and terror. They worked under inhumane conditions without access to adequate food, shelter, or medical care.
Two escapes helped bring to light not just the conditions of the camp, but its sheer existence. József Dobó initially escaped the camp in September 1950, but after the ÁVH captured and threatened his family, Dobó returned from Czechoslovakia and back into custody. On May 20th, 1951, eight imprisoned men escaped; of the escapees, only one managed to avoid recapture and is the only person to ever fully escape the forced labor camp. Gyula Michnay fled to Vienna where he read the names of 600 imprisoned people across the airwaves of Radio Free Europe.
In 1953, the appointed Prime Minister Imre Nagy, following the death of Joseph Stalin, abolished internment camps closing the Recsk labor camp along with others across Hungary. Recsk survivors were released in the summer and fall of 1953, but forced to sign essentially an NDA before leaving the camp. After their release, many were supervised by the police or imprisoned at other locations until the 1956 Revolution. Only after the end of Soviet occupation did survivors begin to share their stories.
György Faludy, Hungarian poet, translator, and writer, was imprisoned in Recsk for three years after returning to Hungary following his time serving the with American forces in WWII (he originally left Hungary for Paris due to his Jewish ancestry). Once released, he moved to London where he worked as a translator. His memoir, My Happy Days in Hell, details his time in Recsk where he notes, “you keep silent until the grave, or you end up in the grave” — a proverb and mantra repeated by the people forced to sign the agreement.
Most of the camp was destroyed and trees were planted on the site. Many of the guards and leadership of the Recsk forced labor camp were never held accountable. János Varga – Vágottnyakú, the sergeant of the ÁVH and party secretary of the camp, settled in the Recsk village and retired as a miner.
The Mine during the 1960s-1990s:
In the 1960s, huge deposits of copper ore and gold were discovered underground (900m and 1200 m deep). In 1967, open pit research continued and the deep mines also included limestone and cover rocks. By 1986, 87.5 kilometers (55 miles) of drilling and 550 holes into the Earth were completed. Operations to explore these sites continued until 1984, an effort that ended due to the combination of decreasing prices of copper and the increase in the profitability of oil.
A quick timeline of mine from the 1990s – today:
- 1994: operations at the mine were managed by Enargit Kft, owned by Rhodes Mining of Australia and the Hungarian state property agency, AV Rt. The following year AV Rt. sold its shares to Rhodes Mining and two subsidiaries, including the Billiton Development BV (a Dutch company), who hired a Canadian mining company, CAMECO to decide the best way to extract the cooper ore in Lahóca.
- 1997 – 1998: the Hungarian government closed the mine and flooded the shafts and roadways.
- 2005 – 2008: the Hungarian state-owned company Mecsek-Oko listed the mine for sale.
- Today: Nitrokémia Zrt., the owner of Recsk II (second portion of the mine operation), conducts reclamation of surface and underground operations. Currently, Recsk I is one of ten mining plants in Hungary owned by the French civil engineering firm Colas. The firm replaced processing equipment and upgraded technology in Recsk — changes valued at 2 million euros — and the mine remains in operation today. Producing products made of pyroxene andesite, trucks carrying materials from the mine drive past the turnoff for the Recsk Memorial today; in 2022 their revenue grew by 17% to 15.5 billion euros.
A Visit to the Memorial (2020):
Environmental Impacts of the Mine:
Surface and deep level mining transforms the landscape in a number of ways: disrupting rock formations, vegetation and water, while also causing erosion and further environmental concerns. Even after a mine is closed, we can still see the impacts of its operation both directly in the physical space, as well as the populations affected. Mining also changes the culture of communities there; railways and towns are impacted not only by construction (arguably both positive and negative) but also through the environmental impacts of the operations and the affects on the natural landscape.
“The Lahóca mine has generated more than 2.1 million metric tonnes of waste, as unprocessed ore, waste rock, and tailings, covering a total area of about 140 000 m2 in eleven dumps.
According to previous studies, the soil and groundwater are polluted with metals beneath and around the waste dumps (VITUKI Consult Rt. 1996), and near the dumps the Balata Creek has been supplied with polluted water and sediments (Gedeon 1962; Rukezo 2003).”Jordan, G., Anton Van Rompaey, et. al. 2009. “Spatial Modelling of Contamination in a Catchment Area Impacted by Mining: A Case Study of the Recsk Copper Mine, Hungary.” Land Contamination & Reclamation 17 (3-4). Available here.
Located in the Mátra Mountains and the protected Kékes Forest Reserve, the Recsk-Lahóca mine is surrounded by beech and evergreen forests, along with oak trees and grassy areas. The Reserve itself is known for its beautiful views, camping sites, hiking trails, and diversity of plant and animal species. While the volcanic history of this area lends to the discovery of highly coveted mining operations — more than just the operation on Lahóca were opened — the unique landscape has also been severely impacted by mining. A 2009 study found that the Recsk mines had a “strong impact on the surface environment” with issues of contamination and erosion. The exposure of rocks containing sulfide to the surface (including land, water, and air) increases oxidation and the contamination of metals into the landscape, a process known as Acid Mine Drainage (AMD); even the non-operational facility still produces AMD that affects vegetation — stemming from waste dumps — along with other sediments that pollute the water and chemistry of nearby streams (although not further). A Msc study in 2003 found that a majority of these waste dumps and flotation tailings were disposed of improperly, increasing rates of erosion, and as a result, more materials washed away and potentially leeching into the environment.
“The Lahoca shallow mine shafts and audits together with associated waste rock dumps emit acid mine drainage and solid material of waste and tailings due to the erosion the main environmental impacts of acid mine leachate include destruction of vegetation and landscape, high intensity corrosion of linear object of infrastructure and acidification of soils and groundwater with heavy metal pollution of Cu, As, Cd, Co, Zn, and Fe…
Recsk Deep Complex produces limited acidification due to the high buffer capacity of the host Triassic carbonates. Na, Cl and SO4 emissions from mine water are however significant… Wastes produced are not dangerous due to specific geological conditions and careful waste dump remediation. The estimated area of landscape destruction is 100,000 m2, including 5 km2 complete ecosystem destruction and 4 km2 surface water impact with NaCl and SO4.”Jordan, G. and M. D’Alessandro (eds). 2004. “Mining, Mining Waste and Related Environmental Issues: Problems and Solutions in Central and Eastern European Candidate Countries.” Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, Ispra. Available here.
Future of the Site:
The Recsk Memorial Site:
In 2020, Réka Földváry Kis, the head of the National Remembrance Committee, announced that a new national memorial site would be built at the former labor camp in Recsk. After an extensive competition, designs by Egyheted Stúdió Objekt, and ZDA-Zoboki Építésziroda were awarded with the project, with an expected opening date of 2024 or 2025.
“One of the starting points of the architectural concept of the memorial park was that the location itself should become a symbol, and thus remind the ordeal of more than 1,800 prisoners held in inhumane conditions, reveal the real face of the communist dictatorship, and invite the visitor on a historical journey to experience the memory.
The basis of the architectural concept is that the historical core of the camp and with it the specific landscape character must be preserved as fully as possible. Due to reasons of historical loyalty and mercy, no building that is not directly related to experience and memory can be placed in its current area. The link between the past and the present is represented on the one hand by the landscape, which has hardly changed substantially in the last 70 years, and on the other hand by the prisoners’ barracks.
The Csákánykői quarry, the former site of forced labor, is still in operation. Thus, the mine itself cannot be part of the visitor route and our architectural concept, but the route from the camp can be. To solve this, the concept uses abstract tools, thus integrating this important place of remembrance into the renewed memorial park.”Epitesz Forum. 2021. “A Symbol of Oppression – Recsk National Memorial Park’s Award- Winning Architectural Concept”. Epitesz Forum. Available here.
Hungary’s problematic “reckoning” with history — and the government’s decisions on how to commemorate events — is marked with outrage from communities of victims and survivors. The House of Terror, opened in 2002, is a popular tourist spot in the country’s capital, but many accuse the museum of using propaganda to tell partial-truths of Hungary’s complicated political history, avoiding the role of Hungarians aligning with both fascist and communist parties, and manipulating historical knowledge to perpetuate current political agendas. While touted as a museum, collections of objects and archival information are largely absent. Near the House of Terror is the recently-unveiled Holocaust memorial built in Szabadsàgtèr (Freedom Square), igniting anger for its passive depiction of Hungarian involvement in the Holocaust; the monument, opened by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government in 2014, was constructed without input from Holocaust survivors and the community built an alternative memorial front of the massive structure to challenge this interpretation of history. The monument depicts Hungary as a victim of Nazi Germany, rather than an active participant in the deportation of the country’s nearly half a million Jewish citizens.
The Mine and City of Recsk:
In January 2023, an andesite mine in Recsk was opened. Many residents were outraged to learn of the new operation that, in some spaces, is just 200 meters (650 feet) from residential buildings; many accused the local government of not notifying citizens or asking for their input in the decision.
Andezit-Bau Kft, the company operating the mine, is co-owned by István Fiák, who sold the company to the family of Fidesz (ruling political party in Hungary) MP Lajos Kósa. The mayor of Recsk stated that the justification of the approval was due to “long-term economic development of the settlement” and the impact assessments were approved by multiple offices including the Environmental Protection Department and Waste Management Department of the Heves County Government Office; the permit is approved until 2026 with extraction of an area of 32.71 ha (80 acres) and operations expected to last 40 years.
Residents are divided on the decision: many are worried that the operations are too close to their homes while others who identify with the mining past of this area welcome the new facility. The first mining explosion occurred in February 2023, sending many running outside of their homes in fear.
This mine will supply stone to the Paks II nuclear power plant set to open in southern Hungary in 2032. Backed by Russian technology and finance, the plant is the “biggest single investment in Hungarian history”. Construction is controversial — even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine — as political opponents asked for similar investments to be made toward renewable energy (already 10% of Hungary’s energy production) and potentially a reversal of a current law that bans the construction of windmills within 10km (6.2 miles) of a settlement. Both were ignored in favor of construction of Paks II.
As with many places of memory and sites of heritage, interpretation and memorialization will shift and change. In the case of Recsk, the memorial site of the forced labor camp is promised an elevated significance in both infrastructure and public remembrance. This, next to a quarry where these same victims worked tirelessly under abhorrent conditions, still remains in operation, with even further mining facilities opening in the area. For this small Hungarian town rich in mining history and culture, the juxtaposition between holistic and victim-centered remembrance along with the very real issues of employment, extraction, and energy facing Recsk today, demonstrate how difficult presenting the issues of historical significance can be, particularly under a governmental regime with clear political motives.
“… remains are emblematic of the uneven and conflicting trajectories of historical and cultural transformation: at once out of time and yet all too present.”Nadkarni, Maya. 2020. Remains of Socialism: Memory and the Futures of the Past in Postsocialist Hungary. Cornell University Press.
Here, like any place, context matters. While we might lump Hungary into a post-Soviet jumble of countries, the Hungarian experience under Soviet occupation was different from their neighbors. The push to show how “western” Hungarians were in the transition to capitalism after 1991 led to developments of historical narratives that we see in the production of memory spaces in Hungary both during that time — for example, the creation of the memorial space in Recsk and the removal of Soviet statues from Budapest to a central location outside of the city — and today with the delayed opening of a Holocaust museum due to historical white-washing and the controversy surrounding the stories told at the House of Terror.
Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University Paul Hanebrink notes: “In Hungary, as elsewhere, the ethics of historical memory and commemoration are both global and local at once.”
Reading: Chain Gang All Stars (Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah)
Watching: Succession Season 4 (HBO)
Listening: Flood (They Might Be Giants)
Baking: These delightful Penovani khachapuri bites from Polina Chesnakova
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