A procession of small bronze sculptures lines the east bank of the Danube in Budapest.
If you keep your eyes on the city’s impressive architecture and hardly ever look down, you’ll miss them. If you’re both lucky and unlucky, one might catch your eye and draw you in for a better look.
As you get closer, you realize they’re shoes of all shapes and sizes. Empty shoes.
Welcome to the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a holocaust memorial.
I heard about it before visiting Budapest, and I didn’t want to go.
I knew I would see the suffering of those who lost everything near that calm water. I knew the scenes would play out in my head like a movie, and I would feel what it was like to be standing on that river bank…to be forced to wait my turn while soldiers shot each of my family members in the head.
Because that’s what happened to as many as 20,000 Jews from the nearby Budapest ghetto between December 1944 and January 1945. Militiamen from the fascist Arrow Cross Party murdered them along the riverbank.
They made them take off their shoes before they shot them. The victims’ bodies fell into the Danube, and the river carried them away.
It was hard not to picture the soldiers standing on the river bank with their guns, bored to indifference or frothing with anticipation as they waited for the next batch of helpless innocents to arrive.
Yet instead of human faces, I imagined that the soldiers’ faces were those of monsters.
This was but one small contingent in an army filled with monsters.
Yet it wasn’t just an army of monsters, was it? No. It was an army of men. Of real men.
Men with families.
And they all pulled the trigger or watched the trigger being pulled.
Instead of turning their guns on themselves or on each other for the horrors they committed, they murdered husbands and wives. They murdered parents.
My wife told me there were also the shoes of children scattered throughout the memorial.
Thank God I didn’t see those. I cried enough as it was. I’m crying now, as I write this.
I heard the screams as I stood by the water. I saw the victims reaching out when loved one after loved one fell into the Danube.
The memorial sculptor placed one shoe along the bank without a match — a young woman’s shoe.
I imagined her slipping it off as she stood by the cold water. She was crying and then they shot her mother or her father or her little brother. She refused to take off her second shoe, maybe because she was too scared to move, maybe because she had resolved to be pushed no farther. She stood there shaking her head, her body quaking, and they shot her anyway. She fell into the river with only one shoe.
A normal man shot her. Not a monster.
There are no platitudes to fall back on here.
“The officers would have killed the soldier’s family if he disobeyed.” So what? You kill a hundred other families instead? “Someone else would have done it in my place.” So what? It wouldn’t be you.
You can’t be alive if you have no soul. Is it better to die than to commit mass murder? The answer is obvious.
A tour guide’s mother had a friend who survived being lined up on the bank of the Danube and shot in the head. She was pulled from the water downstream along with the dead bodies of her entire family. She recovered, but I have no doubt her life after that was torture. A shadow of a whisper of wholeness.
I hate to imagine what she saw every time she closed her eyes.
These men, these normal men…not only did they rip away the last bit of humanity from those they murdered, but they also ensured that anyone who survived would do so with an irreparably fractured soul.
They left holes in their wake, not just in the landscape but in the hearts of their victims.
Heed not your leaders if they tell you to kill the innocent.
Instead, gather your friends and turn on your leaders. Don’t allow the helpless to be harmed. Anyone who would take life away from the innocent does not deserve their own, especially not those who claim to be in charge.
Rally for the weak. Storm the offices of the leaders who would murder them. And don’t be surprised if their bodyguards step out of the way because they were praying for someone like you to come along.