A Review of Archives in Hungary


I have been researching the history of Hungarian motoring for the past 22 years and have visited dozens of archives in Hungary and abroad. In this review I intend to give you, Dear Reader, a sense of what you can expect if you wish to conduct research in Hungary.

What I can offer are my experiences related to my field of research. The history of motoring in Hungary coincided with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, two world wars, radical changes in the political and economical systems in the late 1940s, the 1956 Revolution and the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. A lot of old materials were destroyed, while a lot of families, whose members once  worked in the field  as  dealers, racers, manufacturers, etc., left Hungary decades ago.

This short prelude is given to explain why I have expended  so much energy on tracking down even the tiniest details and how I got to know the Hungarian archives so well. Well, at least those, which offered me a glimmer of hope that they would  shed  new light on certain aspects of my research.

In preparation for this piece, I checked out the websites of the Hungarian National Archive and the Budapest City Archive. It turns out that over the last few years there have been several attempts to create a common database for these two archives, which also include the municipal archives. As a result, today there are three websites!

– Hungarian Archives Portal (http://mlp.archivportal.hu) was created by the Budapest City Archive together with the municipal archives. Today it includes a top-level catalogue of the Hungarian National Archive, the Budapest City Archive and the municipal archives. It also offers digitised documents.

– Digital Archives Portal (http://www.eleveltar.hu). This is an initiative by the Hungarian National Archive. It offers a country-wide catalogue, again with the addition of some digitised and born digital documents.

– DatabasesOnline (http://www.adatbazisokonline.hu). This is another initiative by the Hungarian National Archive, which offers a top-level catalogue again, together with some individual documents.
If you are slightly confused, don’t worry. It is fairly typical in Hungary to have parallel projects aimed at the same purpose.

These on-line catalogues are great, and there are some real gems to be found within them, like digitised papers related to the inner workings of the post-1945 ruling Hungarian Democrats Party (later called Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) and the photo albums of György Klösz, a German-born photographer who settled in Hungary in the late nineteenth century and created some of the iconic photos of the developing Budapest.

In most cases you need to visit the archives in person. The best advice is to either learn Hungarian or bring along someone who speaks the language. And don’t forget to call or email the archive before your visit. A good example is the Hungarian National Archive. This institute has three locations. One of them is located on the outskirts of Budapest. Hordes of people, concerned with genealogy, visit the research room every day. The daily newsletter of the Archive frequently announces that there’s no space left for more researchers. This is why you need to secure your spot in advance. And space is not the only problem here. There is no cafe, so you need to stock up with sandwiches and beverages before you go: the closest pizzeria is a seven to 10 minute walk.

My next tip is to be very, very patient and prepare to spend more time on your research than you had  originally expected. As a rule of thumb, you can order up to four boxes or 40 documents at a time and you usually need to wait at least three working days to get them. Luckily this is not always the case. A lot of my research concerned documents relating to local taxes and municipal affairs. I found one of the best examples of customer service at the Regional Archive in Pécs, which was kind enough to put all the ledgers created by the City of Pécs in the reading room. So if you can get there, research is actually pretty easy: you browse through the index ledgers and if you find something interesting, you order it and the archive staff will provide it to you fairly quickly – within a couple of hours or by the next day. Another great example was set by the Szabolcs-Szatmár County Archive in Nyíregyháza. I was in a real hurry and, in less than two days, I was able to browse through the ledgers and find some relevant documents. Typically things don’t go this smoothly. The three-day waiting period is rigidly observed at most of archives.

You can now order documents via email from some archives. However, in many cases only top-level fonds catalogues are available online. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that you would like to research the history of the Hungarian tyre industry. Over the last five decades, several repertory volumes have been published by the Hungarian National Archive. These offer a historical overview of a topic followed by a very detailed inventory. The tyre industry is such an example. You can find the list of these repertories on the website of the National Archive, but only in the Hungarian language section: http://mnl.gov.hu/bal_menusor/hasznalat/segedletek/letoltheto_segedletek.html

Unfortunately not all repertories are available online. I would like to mention another example, which will really come in handy if you intend to carry out research on pre-Second World War Hungarian trade and commerce. The archives of the Ministry of Commerce were destroyed during the World War. All the documents related to the period 1899-ca.1939 perished. Luckily the archives of the Budapest Chamber of Commerce and Industry survived. The storage facilities of this archive was used by the Red Army as a stable in 1944-1945, with the result that some documents still have traces of horse feces on them! But the most important thing is that these documents survived, and the Chamber had a very good indexing system. There are two factors though which makes research more difficult. 1. After the War, the materials  were scattered all over the storage facility. In the 1960s, National Archive staff tried to sort out the mess and put everything back in its correct place. But, on occasion, they just stuffed everything into boxes. So you need to be aware that a correspondence may start in one box, but related documents may be located in another, totally separate box. 2. Post-1914, index ledgers disappeared. The National Archive published a repertory which helps a bit and if you get the hang of the contemporary indexing, you can still locate some very useful correspondence on a lot of different issues.

Let’s visit some of the Archives!

The Hungarian National Archive in Budapest has three different locations. I can’t highlight enough the fact that before you do anything, you are best advised to find out the right location first and call beforehand. The HQ is located in Buda Castle and it is closest to the old archive concept. It is a nineteenth century building, with plenty of big, imposing spaces. Upon your first visit you need to obtain your research pass. This is not a very long process, but if you would like to research sensitive material (read: anything post-1945), you are better off with a Hungarian-language support document from a museum, a library or a research institute.

Wi-fi is usually available in the reading room. If you would like to photocopy a document, first you need to get permission. I don’t have recent experience of this, but about four years ago, when I last tried, photocopying was done by a member of the archive staff, and it took about 4-5 days for the copies to be made. Alternatively, you can buy a photography ticket which allows you to take photographs of interesting documents.

If you can’t finish your boxes in one sitting, you can store them in lockers and memorise the number for your next visit. Documents are usually stored for a period of one month. If you intend to visit the Archive at its Buda Castle location, you are well advised to walk there. It’s a scenic walk and you can ride the picturesque funicular railway as well.

Much the same can be said of the Budapest City Archive. I found it to be a more friendly place. Luckily,  genealogy people don’t congregate there in crowds so the mood is more relaxed. And in the lobby, you can always find an interesting photo exhibition.

The Budapest City Archive is located next to the headquarters of the Budapest Police, near a hospital and the National Tax Office. It has a small eatery with hot meals on site and is easily accessible by subway. Alternatively you can park your car there.

I hope the above won’t deter you from visiting a Hungarian archive. Language barriers aside, the staff are usually helpful. Genealogy is a very hot topic these days, so you can get a lot of assistance on family history research. Otherwise you just need to be patient and persistent!

Pal Negyesi
School of Museum Studies
University of Leicester, UK

Image: Hadtörténeti Levéltár (Archive of Military History), Budapest.

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