The city of Budapest is steeped in a rich, yet volatile history. From its beginnings as part of the Roman Empire in the First Century BC to its contemporary reputation as a city of resplendence and astonishing beauty, this tale of two cities has always had a unique story to tell. Behind the neo-gothic architecture and gilded parliamentary buildings remains the stain that fascism and communism left on the city, its people, and much of Central and Eastern Europe.
The memorial entitled ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ is located on the Pest side of the Danube Promenade and pays tribute to 3,500 individuals, the majority Jews, who were killed by Arrow Cross Militiamen on the Danube between 1944 and 1945. The memorial was created in 2005 by the Hungarian sculptor Gyula Pauer and award-winning film director Can Togay. The installation captures the whole spectrum of human life: the shoes of everyone from businessmen, to wartime women and tiny toddlers is represented by the iron shoes, with everything from comfortable pumps to workmen’s boots offering us a glimpse into the identities of the individuals whose lives were destroyed by the inhumanity of Nazism. The shoes themselves tell a horror story – that of the deaths of Hungarian Jews, who, in the winter of 1944 to 1945, were captured by members of the Arrow Cross Militiamen from Jewish ghettos, forced to strip naked and remove their shoes, before being ordered to turn to face the river and being shot. The idea being that the captives would fall straight forwards, their bodies being swept away by the river, the apparent removal of what the late Jewish author Phillip Roth would call a distinctly ‘Human Stain’. The shoes, being a valuable commodity in World War II, were removed since they were thought useful and profitable. As T. Zane Reeves recounts in Shoes along the Danube: Based on a True Story, shoes that were thought too damaged or worn would have their laces removed and be used to tie victims together before they were shot. It wasn’t unusual for members of the Arrow Cross to tie together individuals or families with children, before shooting just one victim so that everyone tied together would fall into the water simultaneously, causing the remaining victims to drown.
Pauer and Togay’s memorial consists of iron- sculptured shoes modelled after real 1940s footwear. This particularly moving tribute displays the shoes of Jewish toddlers and children.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Pauer and Togay’s monument is its arresting simplicity. Set against the sweeping, panoramic views of the Danube river and Buda Castle, the ‘Shoes on the Danube’ offer us an opportunity for solitude, quiet and deep reflection away from the throbbing heart of the city. Like the relics of Budapest’s Roman past that are found in attractions such as the neo-Roman Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle, the shoes offer us the chance to connect with Budapest’s past in a way that is individual to us – using our own imaginations to empathise with the terror and pain experienced by people whose lives were so distinct from ours, in culture, lifestyle and history, yet connected by a common thread: something as simple, necessary and universal as shoes. In a sense, the shoes themselves are a symbol of defiance against the idea that such an atrocity can be forgotten by the washing away of hundreds of bodies. The plaques that are in three different locations along the Danube river read: ‘To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45. Erected 16 April 2005’. Written in English, Hungarian and Hebrew, the plaques are a testament to the universal nature of remembrance and grief.
The atrocities that occurred on the Danube and elsewhere in Jewish ‘Ghettos’ throughout Budapest finally began to come to an end in February 1945. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish secretary, played an instrumental role in liberating Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg began his work in 1944, with his efforts ultimately preventing the deportation, and deaths, of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Other victories ran almost parallel with Wallenberg’s efforts. In January of 1945, members of the Arrow Cross broke into a building on Vadasz Street, forcing all the inhabitants out and leading them to what appeared to be certain death. Yet this is where events took an unexpected turn. On that winter’s evening in 1945, the police, armed with bayonets, broke into the Arrow Cross house and all the victims were rescued. This was not the final chapter in the liberation of Hungarian Jews, yet it marked the beginning of a radical change: something resembling hope. Survivors included Lars Ernster, professor of chemistry, pioneer, and prolific author, who later joined the board of the Nobel Foundation – proving that virtue sometimes has its own way of rewarding the good.
The ‘Jewish quarter’ of Budapest now forms part of Budapest’s famed ‘party district’ – a refreshing and invigorating antidote to its associations with Jewish ghettos in the 1940s. Of course, Budapest is not somewhere to forget or ignore its history – and alongside the quirky architecture, street murals and shabby-chic Ruin Bars, you’ll also find the ‘Great Synagogue’ on Dohány Street: the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. It seems to me that Budapest’s Jewish Quarter acknowledges and mourns the horrors of the past, whilst celebrating its cultural heritage and the capacity for transformation and progress.
T. Zane Reeves, Ph.D., Shoes Along the Danube: Based on a True Story (Durham: Strategic Book Group, 2011), p. 190.
Curtis, Michael (14 May 2018). “Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East”. Transaction Publishers. Retrieved 14 May 2018 – via Google Books.