Budapest is a city that beckons travellers with its flamboyant art nouveau architecture, invigorating thermal baths and vibrant bar scene. Aptly dubbed the Paris of the East, this enchanting destination boasts numerous cultural treasures and proudly embraces eight UNESCO World Heritage sites within its borders. This place had long been on our travel bucket list , so we decided to finally make it a reality last January.
As usual, we planned everything down to the last detail. All the popular sites were researched, reservations were made and we booked an apartment with a magnificent view of the historic Dohany Street Synagogue. However, as we delved deeper into the annals of this remarkable city’s history, we faced a sad truth—the shadows of a dark past.
In 1944, a haunting chapter unfolded in Hungarian history as the country fell prey to the clutches of Nazi Germany. With an alarming synchronization of ideologies centered around nationalism, anti-communism and anti-Semitism, the German invaders swiftly installed the Arrow Cross Party as the puppet government. Their particular brand of anti-Semitism called for a society that was completely absent of Jews. In 1944 and 1945, as many as 20,000 Hungarian Jews were executed or sent to concentration camps.
Shoes more valuable than humans
When we compiled our itinerary of things to do in Budapest, we knew that there was one historic place where we needed to pay our respects. It is situated along the east side of the Danube River, near the Parliament building, where many of the Jews were murdered.
The Jews were lined up along the edge of the river and ordered to take off their shoes because they were considered more valuable than the actual human beings who were wearing them. They were executed by firing squad and their barefoot bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The shoes were later sold.
In 2005, a memorial was erected at this location to honour the memory of the Jews who were massacred. It’s called Shoes on the Danube. It was conceived by Hungarian film director Can Togay and created by sculptor Gyula Pauer. It consists of 60 pairs of 1940s-era shoes that are affixed to the wall that borders the river.
There are men’s shoes, women’s shoes and children’s shoes that are made of rusted metal and represent the shoes that were left behind. Along the memorial, you will find several bronze plaques written in Hungarian, Hebrew and English that read “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by the Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.”
When we arrived at the memorial, it became abundantly clear that this was no tourist attraction—it was hallowed ground. Flowers were placed inside many of the shoes and men in yarmulkes bowed their heads in silent prayer, their whispers a poignant melody mingling with the gentle current of the Danube. It was easy to imagine the horrible things that transpired here.
As we took in the spectacle before us, I was reminded of something that I read about early Celtic Christians. They believed there are places in the world where the veil separating heaven and Earth is somehow smaller. They called them “thin places.” As I raised my camera and tried to capture the essence of this evocative tribute, a realization washed over me—a profound understanding that I stood within such a place.
The Shoes on the Danube Memorial is a stark reminder of war’s atrocities and their impact on humanity. A visit to this site will leave you feeling both haunted and grateful for the chance to pay your respects to the memory of those who lost their lives. No trip to Budapest would be complete without a visit to this important landmark.
«RELATED READ» THIN PLACES: Where the diaphanous veil between this world and the eternal world is permeable»
all images courtesy of author
Leave a Reply