Shoes on the Danube
"Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions."
- Primo Levi, Holocaust Survivor
During our recent visit to Budapest, I witnessed one of the most moving things I've seen in my life, Shoes on the Danube. Along the banks of the Danube River, not far from the Parliament building, are sixty pairs of shoes, the style of shoes people wore in the 1940's. Women's, men's, and children's shoes sitting at the edge of the water as if their owners had just stepped out of them. The shoes are rusted, made of iron, and set into the concrete.
The shoes are a memorial and monument to the Hungarian Jews who, in the winter of 1944-1945, were shot on the banks of the Danube by members of the fascist Arrow Cross Party. The memorial was envisioned by Can Togay and created by Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer. It was installed in 2005. At three places along the memorial signs read "To the memory of victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45," one in Hungarian, one in Hebrew, one in English.
The Arrow Cross introduced a reign of terror over Budapest, beating and killing Jews publicly and murdering thousands of Jews all over the city. They decided shooting Jews into the Danube was convenient because the river carried their bodies away. They would often force their terrified victims to strip naked and remove their shoes before they shot them. The sick reason for this was because shoes were a valuable commodity during World War II. Only if their shoes were too worn out to be useful were they shot with them on. The horrible details of these scenes are even worse than what I share here but, surely, hatred and cruelty knows no bounds as we have seen throughout history and even today.
The intimacy of the memorial is almost too painful to take in as you stand on the bank with the river below you and look upon the long line of shoes. You see in the artist's work the people who were forced to take them off before they were killed. You imagine the horror they must have felt standing there, seeing others shot one by one, waiting for the bullet that would take their life, and the unfathomable panic and terror of children and parents in those moments. Each pair of shoes is different and represents the variety of the lives taken. There are women's pumps, workmen's boots, and the tiny shoes of children. Every walk of life. Some worn, some new, some standing, some fallen over as they were removed. Every pair has it's own personality, a monument giving honor to the life of the one who stood in them.
These are some of the most difficult photographs I have ever taken and this is the most difficult post I've ever written, particularly the abominable things discovered in my research, some of which I have spared you. I had to write about it though another part of me wondered why bother? It seems that even when humankind takes time to remember what must never happen again, it continues to happen. Atrocities continue in the world. Will we ever learn? Will it ever stop?
"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace."
- Jimi Hendrix
A heartbreaking yet very important memorial. I find myself feeling grateful to the artists who envisioned and undertook this path. I imagine there were tears along the way, particularly for the sculptor as he shaped and formed these shoes so carefully. How could there not have been? Together they brought Elie Wiesel's words to life...
"To forget the victims means to kill them a second time. So I couldn't prevent the first death.
I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death."
- Elie Wiesel (1928-2016)