The Holocaust of World War II is atrocity permeated by the worst things imaginable. Six million Jews were slaughtered. Nearly twice that number – Poles, Russians, homosexuals, intellectuals, Communists, Romani, the disabled, and others – were also corralled, herded off, and murdered. German Nazis were the ring leaders, but they had help. Some in Hungary are among those who actively participated.
An understated monument within sight of the Hungarian Parliament building testifies to the depravity of that time. It is known as the “Shoes on the Danube.”
Hungary’s Arrow Cross Party were jackbooted Nazi-wannabe lickspittles. World War II was the second time Hungary chose to team up with Germany in a world war – and both outcomes were disastrous. Hungary has a long and tragic history of military and political blunders but in this case World War I and World War II brought into sharp relief the depth of Hungary’s nation-crippling choices.
To be fair, there were – and always have been – many caring and compassionate people throughout Hungary, but fair play often fails against brute strength. Dark political forces within wartime Hungary manifested into the Arrow Cross Party and they actively collaborated with the Nazis. To assist the Nazis, Arrow Cross Hungarians also operated trains that transported hundreds of thousands of Jews to gruesome deaths in concentration camps.
The ascendancy of the Arrow Cross Party darkened Hungary, and the fate of the weakest became dire. During the winter months of 1944 – 1945 heavy rains swelled the Danube River and Arrow Cross goons marched victims to the river’s edge. As the outcome of World War II began to take shape, the value of human life compared to personal property became a life-or-death equation. Thousands of those calculations were made along the banks of the Danube River.
In those moments, in the eyes of the Arrow Cross killers, human life had less value than shoes. The Arrow Cross murderers ordered the victims to remove their shoes. The executioners knew that the swift current of a swollen Danube River would carry the bodies far downstream. But the killers also knew that used shoes of Jews could be traded or sold on the black market. The end of the war was coming and everything – and everybody – was now a commodity.
Soldiers brandishing guns ordered men, women, and children to step out of their shoes. They were offered the chance to jump into the bone-chilling water. Refuse and shoe laces would bind hands. Sometimes two laces bound the hands of three people. Sometimes only one was shot and three tumbled into the river, carried away by the frigid, swift current, to bleed out or drown. A hate-orgy of murderers executed innocent people who never did them wrong. Ultimately Hungary and the Axis would lose the war but the innocents were lost to the Danube. Estimates are that thousands of Budapestians were murdered along the shores of the Danube River, and 800 of that number were Jews. Tens of thousands more Jews would be force marched to the Austrian border, and overall estimates are that 564,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust.
The Shoes on the Danube memorial was conceived by Tan Togay, a Hungarian-born screenwriter, writer, actor, and director. He enlisted the aid of Budapest-born sculptor Gyula Pauer who fashioned 60 pairs of shoes out of iron. Each pair looks as if they were just taken off. Heels show their wear, creases along the top, cracks from use, looking just like anybody else’s shoes. They serve as a present-day reminder of the horrors that occurred in the closing months of World War II. The shoes are attached to the concrete at the riverfront on the Pest side of the city.
Not all visitors are familiar with the heartbreaking story of the Shoes on the Danube. When the details are explained, happy tourist faces drain of color and smiles disappear; they listen, stare at the shoes, and then to the river as they take in the terror the victims surely felt. Sometimes they look down at the shoes on their own feet. Yet many other visitors know the story all too well. They leave memorial candles, walk slowly past the shoes, and bring their children and grandchildren to bear witness. But once the story is understood, it leaves a memory that will last a lifetime.
One reason the memorial is not better known is because of a paucity of information as to its significance. Three simple metal plaques, written in Hungarian, English, and Hebrew tersely state, “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45. Erected 16 April 2005.” Further evidence of the indifference that the Hungarian government shows toward the memorial is that in September 2014 several pair of the shoes were vandalized, but police did not investigate, claiming no one had reported a crime, according to a Hungarian newspaper.
Memorials to the depravity of war and the cruelty of humankind must be remembered so that it does not happen again. And whether the reminder are shoes at the edge of a river, the preservation of concentration camps, or memorials of freedom fighters, we can appreciate that each step taken in the journey of life is precious. Hopefully the Shoes on the Danube can help keep us on the right path.
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