I wasn’t surprised to find several photos of the “Shoes on the Danube” memorial in my inbox the day after my daughters and their husbands arrived in Budapest.
It is one of the most moving memorials to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Many tourists who have no idea about the Holocaust chance on it as they tour the picturesque town of Budapest. On the bank of the Danube River, sixty pairs of shoes, of the type worn by men, women and children in the 1940s, cast in iron, line the stone embankment. Looking at them you can’t help but think of the thousands of Jewish martyrs who were ordered to remove their shoes (which could presumably be sold) before they were shot into the Danube River. Next to the shoes visitors have lit memorial candles, left flowers and some have even left stones inside them, as is the custom when visiting a Jewish grave.
The Memorial, dedicated in 2005, says “To the Memory of the Victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944 – 45.” Victims? Why don’t they say who these victims were?
It’s true that it doesn’t mention that the majority of those victims were Jews, but it does say they were murdered in cold blood by the Arrow Cross Militiamen. These were not German Nazis and this was not done under the order of Hitler or any of his henchmen. These Jews were rounded up and murdered by members of the Hungarian Nazi party who were hated and feared by their own countrymen. It had been one of the first regimes to enact anti-Jewish laws severely limiting the employment, commerce and social interaction of the large, thriving, and vibrant Jewish population long before the Germans ever arrived. They also worked hard rounding up Jews and forcing them into ghettos years before the Germans entered Hungary. The Germans came in mid-1944 when it was apparent that they were losing the war. Most of the Jews could have been saved if the government had really wanted to protect them. They could have dragged their feet building the ghettos and carrying out the deportations. But the Hungarian governing party was so keen to prove themselves friends and allies of the Nazis that they worked overtime deporting Jews to Auschwitz as fast as they could – or rounding them up and killing them themselves. Hungarian Jewry was decimated in record time.
This memorial clearly acknowledges who the perpetrators were, even if it fudges over who the victims were. And that’s what made it so difficult to understand the next batch of photos I received from my children.
In stark contrast to the solemn, moving memorial by the Danube, these second photos showed a large imposing monument entitled “Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation” with bits of paper stuck haphazardly on it and surrounded by many very unofficial looking additions. One photo was a close-up of a long official looking “protest poster” that explained the government’s intended purpose of the memorial, what it is supposed to represent and why there is a 24/7 protest held at the site. The poster is translated into Hebrew, English and several other languages.
This striking memorial depicts a giant eagle, with the date 1944 on one of its talons, it represents Germany swooping down and attacking a “helpless” Angel Gavriel. It implies that Hungary was a helpless victim of the German regime just as other countries were – but it definitely wasn’t. Hungary was an ally of the Nazi regime and hurried to prove it whenever it could. It was only when the Germans discovered that the Hungarian regime had betrayed them and was negotiating with the Allies that it invaded.
From the minute this memorials intended design was made public it caused tremendous controversy. One of the main grievances was that at no time did the government make any attempt to include the Jewish leadership or any other group in its plans. It wasn’t only the Jewish community that was horrified at this distortion of history. Many non-Jewish Hungarians also lost their lives at the hands of the Horthy (wartime) government just like many non-Jewish Germans who opposed the Nazis. Thousands of Jews and non-Jews insisted that the monument be cancelled. But the government ploughed ahead against the multitude of incensed voices.
This was several years before the recent Polish law outlawing the use of the term “Polish death camps.” But it seems that already then the idea that “our government had nothing to do with it and don’t you dare say we did,” was the new anti-Holocaust theme flowing through Europe.
Although members of the government weren’t prepared to back down on the design, they realized that the outrage was too great to allow for the big festive unveiling they had intended. It was finished, unveiled and put on official display in the middle of the night in July 2014. Presumably it was hoped that the low-key non-ceremony would satisfy the naysayers.
But they badly misjudged the opposition. Apart from the monument being pelted with eggs the day after it was unveiled, there has been a large protest presence next to it since. The protective fence around the monument was removed and in its place protesters have erected a barbed wire fence – obviously intended to remind visitors of the fences surrounding the ghettos and concentration camps the Hungarian government set up. This wire has become a focal point for children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims to peg photos of those who lost their lives thanks to the collusion of the Hungarians. Over time other memorabilia has joined the protest. You can see old suitcases, shoes, broken eyeglasses and dolls and, of course, memorial candles. People have also written on the stones and pebbles on the ground. This area, ironically, but not surprisingly, known as Freedom Square, is an area that attracts many locals and tourists and the government had intended this particular memorial to be a proud centerpiece. Instead, the protesters are.
They promise to keep up their presence at this site until the memorial is dismantled.
Budapest is a beautiful city, the Danube is a major tourist attraction and a trip for most people isn’t complete without a sail down the river in one of Budapest’s pleasure cruises. I expected to get photos of a boat trip, however, it turned out that there wasn’t enough time. My daughter admitted she was really pleased that it hadn’t worked out. “I shuddered at the thought of sailing for pleasure on a river that had run red with the blood of our fellow Jews only 70 years ago.”