on August 11, 2013
Can you imagine that a human life could be worth less than the old, worn shoes a person is wearing? By displaying life-sized casts of shoes, the Shoes on the Danube memorial in Budapest represents a small number of the many Jewish inhabitants of the city who lost their lives at a time when the life of a Jew had no value but his old shoes were worth keeping.Hungary had a tough time in the Second World War and nobody suffered more than the Jewish population of Budapest in the final months of the conflict. Initially Hungary and Germany were allies and Hungarian Jewry had not been a priority for the Nazis to attack in the early years of the war. When the war started, the Hungarians had a tough choice between siding with the German Nazis and taking their risks with the communists or going with Russia as an ally but risking in spread of communism. At that time Germany must have seemed like the lesser of two evils and Hungarian leaders chose to side with the Germans in the belief that such an alliance might protect them from communism rather than out of a national sense of commitment to the ideals of Hitler and his followers. In March 1944 Hitler’s troops were frustrated by lack of Hungarian commitment to their conflict and so invaded and occupied Hungary. The Nazis got rid of the previous leadership and put the power in the hands of the local National Socialists, known as the Arrow Cross Party. To this group they gave the responsibility to eliminate the country’s Jewish population. The Arrow Cross worked with enthusiasm, setting up ghettos across the city, deporting Jewish people to the death camps and carrying out orders to work towards the eliminatio of all the country's Jews. The Arrow Cross were not satisfied with leaving the killing to the camps in other countris and so they set about killing people in Budapest.I have struggled to find any statistics on the killings which is strange in an age when information on just about everything seems to be available. Almost certainly the numbers must stretch into the thousands, but nobody seems to know - or perhaps be willing - how many were killed. I almost had the impression that the fate of Jews in the Second World War is a cause of national embarrassment in Hungary. The guide who showed us around the museum next door to the Great Synagogue said that more than 10% of all the Jews killed in the Second World War were Hungarian and that they were killed in the space of just a few months during the winter of 1944 to 1945, a time that locals call the ‘Arrow Cross Terror’.Victims were marched across Budapest by Arrow Cross militiamen, told to line up on the river banks remove their clothes. The winter of 1944/1945 was shockingly cold and anyone who'd spent the previous months starving in the ghettos would have had little natural insulation to keep out the winter chill. By stripping the victims first, the Arrow Cross showed that this killing was not only about taking lives, it was about destroying any remaining traces of dignity. Once the people on the river bank were standing naked, looking at the waters, perhaps looking across the river to the beautiful buildings of old Buda, they were shot and fell (or were pushed) into the waters of the Danube. In the cold winter the earth was too hard to dig graves and throwing the bodies in the river was a convenient and symbolic way to get rid of the Arrow Cross's problem. Can you imagine the impact on people living downstream when dead, emaciated bodies, perhaps bloated by decay, floated past their cities?The Shoes on the Danube memorial can be found along a stretch of about 40 meters on the embankment of the river on the Pest side just south of the Parliament building. You don't have to pay to see this understated little memorial and if you don’t know to go look for them, it would be very easy to miss the shoes. Even when you are at the memorial there is little to tell you what you are seeing. Three brass plaques set into the promenade dedicate the site to the memory of those killed by the Arrow Cross. The plaques small, set into the walkway and written in Hebrew, Hungarian and English. The shoes were created by sculptor Gyula Pauer and his friend, film director Can Togay. Together they cast 60 pairs of iron shoes, each an authentic reproduction footwear common at the time of the killings. They placed them along the embankment, pointing towards the water. The shoes are a mix of sizes and include large boots, dainty ladies’ sandals, and even children’s shoes. Some visitors to the site leave their own commemorations to mark their visit. Flowers are placed inside the larger shoes, small pebbles piled up inside the shoes in the traditional Jewish way of marking a visit to a grave or memorial. Budapest has several memorials to the treatment of her Jewish population but possibly none is more moving that the Shoes on the Danube memorial. It’s one of the smallest and most modest memorials, it lacks the flashiness of the memorial ‘tree’ at the city’s main synagogue or the size or complexity of other memorials in Europe or further afield. In its own, quiet, understated way, the memorial can’t fail to touch the souls of those who see it and to stay long in the memory of any visitors.
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