Empty shoes, empty hearts


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Photos by Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Photos by Bob & Sandy Nesoff

Winter on the shores of the Danube River in Budapest can be especially cold.  The wind whips downstream over the waterway between the Buda and Pest sections bringing a bone-chilling frost that even those wrapped in furs and layered clothing cannot escape.

The winter of 1944-45 was especially cold and the sight of more than 1,000 men, women and children standing, naked, on the edge of the Danube’s banks, shivering as the wind bit into their uncovered skin, was jarring.

Uniformed men walked behind them, lining them up at the edge of the river embankment and facing the rapidly flowing Danube, chunks of ice moving downstream.  The naked prisoners, Jews who had been taken from their ghetto and marched to the river, must have known what was coming, but they could not have guessed at the brutality of the Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists, allies of the German Nazis.

Numb as they must have been, the metallic sound of cartridges being chambered into rifles and the cocking of pistols had to add chills to their shivering.  The Arrow Cross members ordered the prisoners to hold hands and move even closer to the edge of the embankment.

The war was coming to a close.  It was obvious even to the most ardent Nazi sympathizer that they had lost and soon the Americans, Russians and other allies would be marching through their streets.  Vengeance would soon follow from those they had oppressed and their job now was to minimize that ability for retribution.

Ammunition was low as supplies were almost non-existent so an expedient method had to be employed.  With the prisoners gripping each other’s hands, the Arrow Cross walked up and down the line, shooting every third or fourth person.  As the dead fell into the rapidly flowing river they pulled in the living person on either side whose hands they held tightly.  Those who weren’t dead before they hit the water soon were as the chill of hypothermia claimed their lives.

In one fell swoop they obliterated thousands of lives, saved ammunition and did not have to worry about disposing of bodies as they floated down stream.  In all the Arrow Cross murdered some 10,000 to 15,000 in the six months between October 1944 and March 1945, Jews, Christians and anyone else they perceived as not being part of a master race.  Clothing was disposed of but shoes were a valuable commodity and they were saved.

Today one of the most moving memorials to those tragic and horrible days sits on the Pest side of the Danube, a stark reminder of man’s cruelty to his fellow man.

Some 60 pairs of shoes, bronze or metal sit on the Pest bank facing the river.  Strangers stroll by, some hardly glancing at the footwear crafted in the style of the 1940s.  Others stare curiously, not knowing that they represent.

For the curious, a few yards from the water’s edge, is a plaque commemorating those who died and explaining the Monument of the Shoes.  Although the murders crossed ethnic lines, the brutality nearly wiped out the once thriving Jewish community in the city.

The Uniworld Cruise line’s ship, River Princess, sits on the Buda side of the Danube within sight of the monument.  While it is not on the tour agenda, buses carrying the passengers slow as they pass the shoes, the driver providing an explanation.  Some take the rather long walk from quayside across the city’s famed Chain Bridge and along the bank to get a closer look.  None ever return to the River Princess unmoved.

Uniworld offers an option tour in Budapest, “Jewish Budapest,” that passes the memorial and goes into the heart of the old Jewish Section on the Pest side.  Interestingly, perhaps half or more of the tour participants are not Jewish.  They show an interested and reverence for what was and what could have been.

The cruisers are taken on a short walk through the sector and points of interest are indicated.  But without doubt the highlight of the trip is the Grand Synagogue that has somehow escaped the brutality of the Nazis and the Arrow Cross.

The synagogue is still an active religious institution although the number of congregants has been seriously diminished from the “bad times” until today.  It is called the most “beautiful Catholic synagogue in the world.”

The reason is immediately apparent to any visitor.  The interior design would be approved by any bishop who had commissioned a church to be built and it is unlike virtually any other synagogue in the world.  The synagogue is laid out much as the interior of any great church.  The pulpit, instead of being in the middle of the interior or at the front and center, is raised with a spiral staircase leading to it.

In the rear courtyard are several memorials to those murdered.  Alongside the building is a garden with headstones.  However, make sure to visit the rear of the synagogue.  There a metal tree in the shape of an inverted menorah stands, on its leaves are engraved the names of thousands of the victims of the Holocaust.  American actor, Tony Curtis, was instrumental in providing funds for this memorial.  Yards away stands the house in which Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, was born.

Guides and residents of the city will confidentially confide to you that even though the war has been over for some 67 years, there is still a lingering atmosphere of anti-Semitism.  The government is hard at work today in an effort to distance itself and its people from that negative impression.