Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"The Shoes on the Danube" and the Challenge of Preserving Holocaust History in Hungary

 Photos by L. Davis

On a July 2017 trip to Budapest, Hungary, I was struck by the beauty of this place that hugs the Danube River. The city is the product of the 1873 merger of two previously independent cities, "Buda" and "Pest," that were divided by the river. Today, "Buda" represents a quiet, residential section of the city (upscale in parts) while "Pest" represents a total repudiation of Hungary's communist past: it is full of swanky hotels, bars, restaurants and retail outlets that dazzle the eyes of tourists from all around the world. As a "when in Rome" type of tourist I was hoping to sample the local goulash but was instead distracted by the array of non-Hungarian food that was available. Along with friends with whom I was traveling, we dined at a very good Middle Eastern restaurant (run by a hardworking Palestinian family) that served excellent falafel and hummus. At the Central Market I ate fresh fruit and bought plenty of the famous Hungarian paprika to bring home to my wife. However, as a historian I knew that I would have to reconcile the bright lights of Budapest with a darker reality that was the purpose of my visit in the first place: to study the Holocaust in this relatively small corner of Central Europe.

 A simple memorial on the banks of the Danube tells of the gruesome fate of Budapest's Jewish community during the last year of World War II. "The Shoes on the Danube Promenade" was completed in 2005 on the Pest side of the river, a short walk from the Hungarian Parliament building. Accompanying the shoes are three plaques in Hungarian, English and Hebrew (see English version above) that clearly state what happened on this very spot and along the riverbank: pro-Nazi Arrow Cross militiamen shot Jews and threw them into the Danube in a frenzy of murder that gripped the city after the Arrow Cross Party came to power under the auspices of the Nazis in October 1944.

This memorial is powerful in its simplicity. However, it is limited in explaining the complexity of the events that led to the genocide of the Jewish population of Budapest and who led this horrifying endeavor. Preserving the memory of those murdered is the function of sites such as these; providing historical context is another matter entirely. The context is quite chilling and when explained brings out aspects of the Holocaust in Hungary that are not easily discernible to the casual traveler.

The background to the slaughter of Budapest's Jews hinged on political events that triggered an intense social backlash that led to genocide. Until October 1944 Jews in the city lived in relative safety, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the country who had been rounded up by Hungarian gendarmes (this action was supervised by the elements of the German SS) between May and July and sent to Auschwitz (about 440,000 Jews were deported, most to be killed in the gas chambers there).  A public announcement by the Hungarian viceroy, Miklos Horthy (Hungary was an ally of the Third Reich), to contact the Allies to work out a peace deal enraged Adolf Hitler, who sent troops to occupy Hungary to ensure that it remained in the Axis fold. After toppling the government and putting a new one in the hands of Ferenc Szalasi and his fascist, anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party, the fate of Budapest's Jews was sealed. The reign of terror that Hungarian Arrow Cross members visited on the the Jewish population was made more lethal through the direct collaboration of non-Jewish citizens in the killing and dispossession of the Jewish population.

The murder of approximately 80,000 Jews in Budapest is a fact. However, the new authoritarianism that is currently sweeping Central Europe--most notably in Poland (a country that had been lauded as a democratic success story by many in the West)--is now embodied in Hungary in the person of its Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. Orban has not publicly defended anti-Semitism but has been skillful in playing it to his advantage. On a recent trip to Israel, he reiterated his wish for stronger ties with that nation and then visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. In response, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu  called Orban a "friend of Israel". But it is clear that Orban is not a friend to Hungary's Jews. He has remained silent as funding for the Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center has declined steadily since he took office while the new state-sponsored House of Terror museum has become the place tourists are encouraged to visit to get a slug of information regarding the war and its aftermath. In short, the museum conflates the Nazi and Soviet regimes and plays them both as oppressors of the Hungarian people--the Nazis before 1945 and the Soviets afterwards. No mention is made of the disturbing history of anti-Semitism that was codified into law under Horthy's rule in the 1920s and 1930s that made the actions of the Arrow Cross possible. In addition, Orban failed to condemn the recent awarding of the Order of Merit of the Knight's Cross to Zsolt Bayer, a virulent anti-Semitic journalist.

In order to understand the history behind memorials like"The Shoes on the Danube Promenade" a common public understanding must be taught in schools, supported by public officials, and made a part of the national historical narrative. There was a bright moment in the 1990s when the post-Soviet era included free elections and a brief reckoning by Hungarians of the murder of over half a million Hungarian Jews. The Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center was created during that decade along with a Holocaust Commemoration Day. The current authoritarian moment threatens to destroy this reckoning with this painful past and negates the meaning that the shoes along the Danube represent. The preservation of this monument can start with reestablishing the proper historical context (historians are central to this effort), but it will take the efforts of Hungarian citizens themselves to protect the memory of those murdered along this iconic river. 


  1. Beautifully stated, Larry. "In order to understand the history behind memorials like"The Shoes on the Danube Promenade" a common public understanding must be taught in schools, supported by public officials, and made a part of the national historical narrative." The press and the public have to grill its public officials on their knowledge of any kind of historical narrative that can be exploited for its opposite purpose. Thanks for writing and posting.

  2. Thanks for reading my post, Ed. I agree that an energetic and courageous press is needed to preserve this important narrative.