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Budapest does not forget the murders, that is when the shoes of Jewish people were worth more than their lives. The memorial named „Shoes on the Danube bank” commemorates the bloodcurdling events.
How much is worth a person’s life?
A pair of shoes does not worth much, in a normal case a person buys more pairs a year, what is more, there are people who even collect them. In the mid-forties, in Eastern-Europe it wasn’t so.
That time a pair of shoes was worth more than a person’s life. In those years, one was shot in the head on the Danube bank after having to take off their shoes. This solution was really practical because the body was drifted by the Danube, there was no hassle with that.
However, the shoes were easily available by leaning down to the ground, and it could be sold at a good price, or it could even be retained by the person who had just shot another person, actually, he had shot only a Jewish person this way taking away from him not only his shoes but everything else.
In Budapest, we can find many extraordinary, what is more, shocking exhibitions, as the past itself of the city is also shocking. One of the most special exhibitions is called Shoes on the Danube bank, although the word „exhibition” is not the best expression for this.
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In the frame of an exhibition, we can see artworks. However, the 60 pairs of shoes lining up on the Danube bank are about remembering dreadful events rather than taking pleasure in art: it is much about not letting us forget.
It does not let us forget the murders, the mass slaughter of people, the Holocaust. The Danube, which was a practical scene for murders in 1944-45, has a symbolic meaning now. According to the Torah, the river is the symbol of time: the time which cannot obliterate the memories.
What is the message of the „Shoes on the Danube bank”?
The memorial inaugurated in 2005 lines up the non-removable shoes made of iron between Roosevelt- and Kossuth Squares. These relics, however, could have been placed anywhere else since along the whole Danube on the river bank, both on the Pest and Buda side, people were shot into the Danube. Most of them were killed in the northern part of Margaret Island.
It is important to point out that the memorial is the result of a civil initiative, so it was not prepared at state order, although later, the state also provided support so that it could be made. Still, the majority of the amount necessary for its implementation was raised from donations. Often old people experiencing and suffering from the war and the terror contributed to this amount with as much money as they could afford, often with only 1.000-2.000 Forints.
The idea of the composition belongs to Can Togay, the friend of Gyula Pauer, a Kossuth-Prize winning sculptor and film director. He figured it out during an evening discussion. As children, both of them went through the horror, therefore, they decided together to make the memorial.
The basis of the concept was not given by personal memories, rather the film called „Budapesti tavasz” (Budapest Spring) was made based on the novel of Ferenc Karinthy. Félix Máriássy, film director, shot a scene in his work in 1955, in which Jewish people are lined up on the Danube bank, with armed Nazis behind them, however, the execution itself is not shown.
This was the motive that caught the attention of the creators. To translate it into the language of art, it is called „the rhetorics of shortage”. Gyula Pauer and Can Togay also wanted to realize the memorial this way, which was really successful.
Why does the memorial consist of exactly 60 pairs of shoes?
The 60 pairs of shoes draw attention to the lack or non-existence of their former owners. They stand empty, there is nobody who could put them on since their owners are dead, the floating Danube swallowed them without compassion.
The artwork, by emphasizing this non-existence, points out the dreadful nature of the terror and its tragedy. The question, why there are exactly 60 pairs of shoes, may arise.
The answer is not because this is the number of people executed. The number is much more dreadful, according to real data along the whole Danube bank iron-made shoes could have been lined up. The reason is much more simple than that. The 60th-year-anniversary of the tragedy was in 2005, on the other hand, according to the creators this is the number that makes the concept visually complete.
About the Nazi terror
In Hungary, the Nazis took power on 15th October 1944, after the country had laid down the arms and the Germans made Miklós Horty resign as a leader of the country. Ferenc Szálasi was placed in his position, who was the head of the Arrow Cross Party and a well-known far-right person.
That time it was Budapest where a significant number of Jewish people still lived, as from the countryside, everyone had already been taken to forced labor, or even worse, to the death camp. Out of 600.000 Jewish people who lived in the territory of Hungary about 400.000 were killed during the Holocaust.
The obsession and „dedication” of the fanatic Hungarian politician, Szálasi, is proved by the fact that he could even hand over 50.000 forced laborers and Jewish people from the capital city to the Germans in order to strengthen his international politics.
The Nazi power lasted for 95 days in Pest and for 118 days in Buda, and this period of time was equal to fear and dread. What exactly happened and how many people fell victim to the terror is unknown because the Nazi dictatorship was directly replaced by the Communist one in the city, and the Soviets wanted to multiply the number of murders in order to make themselves look stronger.
There is no better expression for this than „the absurdity of horror”. However, there were survivors whose reports and accounts provide a kind of picture of the happenings.
According to the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, who prevented the deportation of 20.000 Jewish people to a death camp, the Nazi terror started right in the very moment of taking power. Each raid ended up with the death of 100-200 people, according to historians about 3600 people lost their lives during the „short terror”, while others say this number is 8.000.
According to a survivor who pretended to be dead, the victims were chosen randomly. Everyone who was found was taken, whether a man, woman or child. It is not by chance that the iron-made shoes on the Danube bank also consist of shoes of female- and male adults as well as those of children.
Other survivors reported that the Nazis had raped young girls before they shot them into the river. A lady who miraculously survived the dreadful events recalled the following:
„We were taken to a small booth, where they made us take off all our clothes and were violent with us. I took use of this confusion, slipped out of the booth and jumped into the Danube.”
Unfortunately, most of them were not as lucky as that. According to others, the executions on the Danube bank usually took place during the night and the victims were transported to the river bank, in groups of 30 on average, but sometimes this number was much more, even above 100.
Many things could be bought from the price of the shoes of the murdered Jewish people, but they did not buy bullets. As the terror was progressing, the ammunition was running out.
As the terror was approaching to the end, often 2-3 Jewish people were tied together, but only one of them was shot in the head so that the weight of dead body submerging in the Danube could pull down the other two persons.
Since there is no perfect work, some of them shot in the Danube survived, or they did not die immediately. The account of the ambulance workers of those times is maybe the most dreadful record of all the contemporary documents. They described how these miserable people with bullets in their bodies were flailing, trying to swim out of the bloody foams and stay alive. Some of them were successful, however, even if they reached the bank, they had gone crazy.
The number of the Nazi troops was guessed to be more dozens, and most of the murders were committed at the Pest side of the Chain Bridge. The most certain execution sites in Pest were Megyeri csárda, the mouth of the Rákos-patak (Rákos stream), Dráva street, Szent István Park, Eskü Square, the line of hotels of Pest, Ferenc József quay. In Buda, executions were carried out at Nagyszombat street, Batthyány Square and Szilágyi Dezső Square.
Obviously, it was not only the Danube that was given unwanted victims, executions took their victims in the streets, in narrow streets, in apartment buildings, so all in all, everywhere. And who were the murderers? It is horrible in itself, or at least as far as their age is concerned: they were children.
The delegate of the International Red Cross sent the following report to the center in Geneva on 18th October 1944:
„15-17-year-old Nazis diverted several Jewish people to the Danube bank, where they tied them and pushed them into the river.
Later, Szálasi had a similar fate, he was executed in the prison of Markó street on 12th March 1946, however, he was not shot in the head but hanged. One of the creators of the Holocaust Memorial, Can Togay, summarized his thoughts in connection with the happenings and its commemoration in the following way:
„I remember the history of the people killed on the Danube bank as the most terrible feelings of my childhood. I can still recall this feeling. This is the reason why it is so meaningful for me that this memorial could be realized based on the joint idea of Gyula Pauer, my friend, and me. It highlights a hidden and excruciating piece of the memory of our home town, proving that Budapest is not willing to forget and dares to face with its past.”
At the inauguration of the memorial, more than a thousand people were present, and „The March of Life Foundation” marched to the scene with torches.
All the important Hungarian Churches were represented at the inauguration in order to reject together the Holocaust and the events that happened 60 years earlier.
The inscriptions of plaques are written in three languages, in Hungarian, English, and Hebrew, and the following can be read:
„To commemorate the Budapest victims shot into the Danube by the Nazi gunmen in World War II.
Mounted on 16th April 2005.“
The afterlife of the memorial
In 2017, the Holocaust Memorial won the second rank at Architecture Digest, which is a list ranking public place artworks since 1920. Can Togay said the following in connection with these significant and upstirring happenings:
„If the striking, interesting or important statues of the world are listed, the „Shoes on the Danube bank” have been chosen as one of them for years. This time, it was listed in the second place in the architectural journal among the excellent statues, and it became known as the second-rank winning artwork. It would not be meritful to compare statues to each other and award prizes. However, it is good that this special Budapest memorial is paid attention to because it creates a reputation for Budapest as a city able and willing to face its past.”
The Jewish community still organizes and celebrates the Inauguration of the Torah here, and regular Holocaust commemorations are also held. Still, remembering and not forgetting is almost proved by the fact that besides the official dates of the commemoration, newly-lit candles can regularly be found here. It means that the memorial reached its target, the fact why it was made: Budapest does not forget.