In a literal sense, the title of this blog “Shoes on the Danube”, refers to the last few hours Mary and I spent in Budapest on July 4th, 2019. After lunch onboard the Viking Lif, we ventured out for one final walk before our 5:45 departure from the city. Our previous wanderings had been in the immediate vicinity of the ship, but this time we wanted to head along the east bank of the river with a very specific destination in mind – one that would require a fairly brisk 30-35 minute walk in each direction, and a total round-trip distance of 6.2 km (just under 4 miles).
Back to the title of this blog again, and in a very somber and moving sense, the title “Shoes on the Danube” really refers to a memorial created to honour the Jews who were murdered by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. The Arrow Cross Party was a short-lived but murderous far-right party that formed a Government known as the Government of National Unity. Though only in existence for six months from October 1944 to March 1945, they were responsible for the murder of between ten and fifteen thousand Jews and Romanians, and sent another 80,000 to concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Austria.
During their six month reign of terror, the Arrow Cross Militiamen herded more than 3500 Hungarian Jews to the bank of the Danube, ordered them to take off their shoes, and then shot them at the edge of the river, so that their bodies would fall into the river and be swept away. The monument, unveiled in April 2005, represents their shoes left behind on the bank. The sculptor created sixty pairs of period-appropriate shoes out of iron, attaching them to the stone embankment.
The pictures we took (below) speak for themselves.
My father was a non-practicing Jew who hid his religion from the armed forces when he enlisted in the RAF, and kept it a secret from my mother for the entire 46 years they were married. In 1991, a year after my mother’s passing, he shared his secret with me and said it was the first time he had spoken about it since he joined the Royal Air Force. He told me that because of the atrocities that were being committed against the Jews in Europe, he was terrified of the treatment he might receive if he was captured, so he enlisted as an Anglican (his mother’s faith), and did not speak of it again for more than 50 years. Standing there beside those shoes, I understood what he was thinking when he made that decision back in 1943.
For the second time on this day in Budapest, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of sadness and horror, and was staggered at the thought of what one human being is capable of doing to another. My heart hurt, yet I was also moved by the memorial that had been created, and I watched in silence as passers-by paid their respects, and knelt to touch and in some cases speak to the shoes.
Taking a deep breath, we paused for a moment to take in the spectacular buildings on the opposite side of the river, in particular the rebuilt Buda Castle, and Matthias Church with the Fisherman’s Bastion directly below it. You can just see the corner of the Chain Bridge in the picture on the right (below).
We left the “Shoes on the Danube” monument behind and began a slow meander through the shopping district that we had first seen on the previous day during our introductory walkabout. As we walked back to the ship, we talked about that rebirth of Budapest, a city that had literally risen from the rubble of World War II, and had shed the shackles of Soviet rule.
Of all the towns and cities on the European River Cruise agenda, Budapest was the one I had been most interested in seeing, and I was not disappointed. And now, we were about to set sail for Vienna, a 24 hour-journey that would see us travelling northwest up the Danube, and through Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
My next blog will take you with us on the first leg of our river cruise!