Sixty pairs of shoes line a prominent stretch of the bank of the Danube River, which bisects this European capital. From a distance, they look real. Up close, the cast iron shoes stand as painful replicas of those ordered off the feet of innocents, just before they were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were washed away.
The horror of the Holocaust is captured eloquently, simply and silently in the variety of footware now embedded in the sidewalk. Some were obviously dress shoes, some child-size, ladies’ heels stand next to men’s work boots. The variety shows how no Jews were spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944 and ’45.
I visited the haunting memorial near dusk recently, and the few others present were quietly reflective. As a guide had explained earlier, the display memorializes how shoes represented items of value; the lives of those who wore them meant nothing.
A day later, off on my own, I happened upon another collection of shoes, this one not made of cast iron, but actual old shoes, mixed with old eye glasses, Jewish memorial candles and plastic-covered copies of photos showing Adolf Hitler riding through the city with a Hungarian leader at his side, both all smiles.
The patch of memorabilia turned out to be a protest, laid out on a sidewalk opposite a new memorial to honor Hungarians who died in the second world war. Two dog walkers, not related, stopped to answer my questions, answers that ramped up unexpectedly into a heated confrontation.
An animated Hungarian woman wanted to explain the legitimacy of the war memorial, emphasizing that many Hungarians, not just Jews, suffered during the war years. Another passerby vehemently countered her recitation. “You can’t rewrite history,” he snapped at her. “Hungary invited Hitler into the country.”
Frustrated by his comments, she headed off across the street toward two police officers stationed near the blocked off monument, appearing to complain about the man’s opinions. At one point, she yelled over at him, “We don’t need your kind.”
His “kind”? He had told her he was German. Later, in a lower voice, he confided he was Jewish and Israeli, originally from Germany. He explained it’s not something he would share with most passersby. It’s not comfortable to do so today.
Seventy years after Nazis cut down the once-thriving Jewish population of Hungary by 600,000, painful, raw feelings remain, disputes linger, the government is again swinging toward nationalism, while the hunt throughout Europe continues to prosecute the final living Nazi henchmen and enablers.
The “Shoes on the Danube” memorial sits on the Pest side of the river, facing the massive, dramatic historic Royal Palace building in Buda, an edifice astoundingly impressive when lighted at night. The juxtaposition of grandeur and horror makes the cruelness more searing.
Empty shoes are a repeated motif of Holocaust memorials worldwide. Massive piles of victims’ shoes shock visitors in Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, just as they do at the Washington, D.C. Holocaust memorial. But the simplicity of the 60 pairs of shoes beside a river now heavily trafficked by tourists is equally dramatic, a reminder of the horror of what happened to so many, not really so many years ago.
As the sidewalk confrontation confirmed, healing in Hungary remains a work in progress.