My wife and I were in Budapest recently, a beautiful, vibrant Danube River city. One of the things we wanted to see was the Shoe Memorial, which is located on the stone bank along the riverside near the Parliament building. Monumental is an appropriate word to describe Parliament, which glows golden at night, a stunning sight when entering the city on the river. But monumental is not a word that one would apply to the Shoe Memorial, at least not in the traditional sense.
On the day we go in search of the Memorial, the air is bitter cold and the wind is biting. We walk slowly, huddled and hunched to stay warm when we come upon the memorial rather unexpectedly. We stand quietly, looking, stunned in an entirely different way. There are about sixty pairs of shoes from the 1940s, randomly arrayed; shoes cast in iron, anchored into the concrete. Some lay on their sides, all of them face the river; there are women’s low heeled shoes, children’s tie shoes, men’s round toed shoes. Many of them have votive candles tucked inside, or small bouquets of flowers placed carefully, respectfully beside them.
On a harsh winter day in 1944, Jewish men, women and children were rounded up from the ghetto by the fascist Arrow Cross Party and herded to the river where they were forced to disrobe, told to take off their shoes (shoes being a valuable commodity during the war), and then were shot from behind at close range so they would fall directly into the river and be washed away forever.
But not forgotten. In 2005, sixty-one years later, this memorial was created in their memory; in the memory, actually of many more citizens of Budapest who were killed in the same manner, joining millions of other European Jews in eternity.
As we walk away, I think to myself, “I can’t believe there was a time when shoes were more valuable than people; when human life meant almost nothing just because of one’s religion, one’s ethnic background.” This thought is followed by another, “Our time, today, is no different.”
Then I think about the importance of memory. These lives deserve to be honored. This is a sacred place, an altar, where anyone who comes should be left quaking with the recognition of what we do to each other. And for those who refuse to forget, that memory and the stark recognition that comes with it should serve as a jagged pebble in the shoe of our soul, reminding us that we can do better, that we can be better, that we can step back from the river’s edge, that we can stem the tide of cruel and senseless bigotry.
David B. Seaburn is a writer. His latest novel, Parrot Talk, will be released on May 11. He is the author of five previous novels. Seaburn is a retired family therapist and minister.