From the series: Life on Dog Hill
The story I’m about to share has been on hold for the last year. On hold because I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. On hold because just remembering makes my eyes tear and my throat clinch. It’s a remembrance of a terrible history. A history we should never forget.
If you read my post from last week, you’ll know that this time a year a go my husband and I were on a European jaunt — just the two of us. We flew into Munich, Germany and enjoyed a few days there before heading north along the Romantische Strasse (Romantic Road) into Linz, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dettelbach (my old stomping grounds) and then to Nuremburg where we boarded for a seven day cruise on the beautiful Danube. It was our final destination along the Danube that my remembrance is rooted — Budapest.
We arrived in Budapest early morning, just as the mist was lifting from the water. Passing slowly under several of the city’s beautiful bridges we docked on the Pest side and enjoyed breakfast before boarding the chartered bus for a city tour. Our first stop was the Basilica of St. Stephens with its beautiful colored tiles, high on the Pest side overlooking the Danube. The area around the Basilica was bustling with local shops selling sweets and handmade goods. The tour continued as we traveled across the Danube into the Buda side and visited Hero’s Square in City Park, one of the most visited sites in Hungary. As it was late November and the weather was frigid, my favorite aspect of City Park was standing on the grates covering the hot springs being channeled to the nearby Szechenyi Spa.
The tour was filled with interesting sites and historical information. Our tour guide shared personal stories of life during the communist era. It didn’t sound very pleasant. Which brings me to the emotional part of my story.
As the tour came to its end, the bus passed the Parliament building and headed toward the Chain Bridge. I was seated on the right-hand side of the bus next to the window and was looking across the Danube to see if I could spot our boat. Suddenly, my eyes were drawn to hundreds of shoes on the banks of the water. When our tour guide told us what the shoes represented, my eyes began to tear and didn’t stop until long after returning to the boat. My heart was broken by a tragic memory.
In the Spring of 1944, Budapest had become a holding ground for Jews. Many had already been killed in labor camps and during forced foot migration into Austria. It was during this time that the Nazi fascist Red Arrow Party was installed, a group that terrorized the Jews by arbitrarily firing at them and rounding groups of them up for massacre. During these huge massacres, the Jews would be marched to the banks of the Danube, forced to remove their shoes and then shot. Their bodies, whether dead or alive, would fall into the icy water to be carried toward the Black Sea.
It is estimated that 15,000 Jews lost their lives on the banks of the Danube. Hence the memorial created in 2005 — 60 pairs of period-appropriate shoes cast in iron and attached to the stone embankment. Every day visitors come to reflect upon the genocide. Many visitors light candles or place flowers in and around the shoes. It’s a somber visit with many visible tears.
Although Budapest was the final destination for our river cruise, Tom and I had already planned to spend extra time in the city. The tour had given us a good idea of what we would do once we were on our own — top on my list was the chance to go back and visit the Jews’ shoes on the banks of the Danube. I needed to be there, take pictures and fully feel the emotions that the memorial brought out in me.
I can’t say why this memorial felt so emotional. It’s not that I am uninformed about the Holocaust. After all, I lived in Germany for four years and Germans make no secret about their Nazi history, showing many documentaries to educate the younger generations to the horrors of the past. I’ve studied politics and German history. I’ve seen Schindler’s list and even visited his Regensburg home where he lived briefly after the war. But there, in Budapest, the realization hurt deeply.
Tom and I walked back to the memorial the next day. While I was there photographing the shoes, the tears fell. Even now, in this retelling, the tears fall.
I share this story with you in the hopes that you will also remember.