When we travel the world we come face to face with history, some grand, and some that we would wish away if we could. This article is about the great stain on European history referred to as the Holocaust. There are many recorded stories about Holocaust horrors, and you may not be familiar with this one – we weren’t – until we came across a simple, poignant memorial.
It was our first river cruise, and we chose Viking Cruise Line and an itinerary that sailed between Budapest and Bucharest in Eastern Europe.
Our ship, the Jarl, was docked and waiting for us in Budapest. We were a short walk from the famous, often photographed, Hungarian Parliament Building that was inaugurated in 1896 on Hungary’s 1000th Anniversary. If you are not familiar with this magnificent structure, you may remember it as a feature of the Viking River Cruise ads on television.
After checking into our stateroom on board the Jarl, we decided to take a stroll along the Danube to photograph the Parliament Building. Along the way we encountered a small group of people pondering over some small items lining the concrete bulkhead of the river.
The subject of interest
The objects of the group’s interest were shoes. Actually, sixty pairs of old worn shoes, all sculpted in cast iron. Men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes of the 1940s, perfect in every detail.
At first we were taken aback by the oddity of the scene and the unusual sculptures. There were no conspicuously visible signs describing what we were looking at, until we noticed a small metal marker embedded in the cement that read, “TO THE MEMORY OF THE VICTIMS SHOT INTO THE DANUBE BY THE ARROW CROSS MILITIAMEN IN 1944-45.”
So, this was a memorial, but who were the victims and who were the Arrow Cross Militiamen? We didn’t know, so we did some research.
The brief story
There were approximately 3,500 people shot along the Danube River in Budapest between 1944 and 1945 – mostly Jews and Gypsies. The site of the memorial was just one of several locations along the river bank used by the Arrow Cross in their executions of innocent people.
Members of The Arrow Cross were Hungarian fascists sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Adolf Hitler used them to replace the legitimate government of Hungary during the Nazi occupation. They ruled as the “Government of National Unity.” They were in power just eight months, from October 1944 to May 1945. During that time, they killed or sent to concentration camps 100,000 Hungarian Jews.
Why shoes as a monument?
Because they are so personal. The men, women, and children to be massacred were ordered to remove their shoes, an act that we all can relate to – and therefore, easily imagine ourselves in the same terrifying situation.
After they removed their shoes, the victims were summarily shot, and their dead or wounded bodies fell into the cold rushing river. Ironically, this egregious and repugnant act took place just 1000 feet from one of man’s greatest architectural accomplishments, the beautiful Hungarian Parliament.
If you go
The memorial is simply named, “Shoes on the Danube Promenade.” Like a visit to the Ann Frank House in Amsterdam, or the Auschwitz Camp near Krakow, Poland, a visit to the shoes in Budapest, Hungary is a moving and somber experience, and a stark reminder of the cruelty that man is capable of inflicting on his fellow human beings.
This unique remembrance of the Budapest tragedies is the idea of Hungarian film producer Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pyauer. The display was opened to the public in 2005.
We are thankful that travel experiences generally celebrate the grandeur and beauty of our planet, and the spectacular achievements of mankind. Nevertheless, tributes like the “Shoes,” play an important role in reminding us that we must never lose sight of what can happen when evil takes the form of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.