Not every story requires a wordy telling. Sometimes a well-positioned image or object can evoke stronger emotions and deeper meanings than words allow.
I am reminded of this simple fact whenever I look at this photo that Jo snapped when we visited Budapest, Hungary two years ago. On our second day in the city, we boarded a bus for a tour of Budapest. Bus tours are often the best ways to get an overview of a new place, and this one was especially interesting since our tour guide salted her presentation with a running commentary on Hungary’s history and politics.
When we passed the majestic Parliament Buildings with their red-tiled roofs, our guide pointed to a memorial along the banks of the Danube River. From the bus we really couldn’t see it, but later in the day we returned for a closer look.
Sixty pairs of rusted shoes cast out of iron lined the bank. Some were tiny, others 10 sizes larger. Spaced 30 or so centimeters apart, the shoes ranged from dress to informal: high heels and wing-tips to sneakers and children’s boots.
The impact was immediate. Viewed together, the shoes told of a brutal period. On March 19, 1944 German troops occupied Hungary. Hitler deposed Prime Minister Miklós Kállay and appointed as head of state, Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the Nyilaskereszt (Arrow Cross) fascist party.
From 1944-1945, Szálasi embarked on a reign of terror. Intent on following Hitler’s extermination plan, Szálasi and his Arrow Cross militiamen stripped Hungarian Jews and dissidents of their businesses and possessions, herded them into ghettos, and deported tens of thousands to Auschwitz. Still others were marched to the edge of the Danube. Once lined along the bank, men, women and children were forced to remove their shoes, strip naked, and face the river. A firing squad opened fire, shooting at close range. Like cut timber, the bodies fell into the river and drifted downstream. Thousands died in this fashion, so many that eyewitnesses reported that the Danube was stained red with blood.
Determined not to let the event fade from memory, film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial on the west side of the river, just in front of the Parliament Buildings. At three points behind the shoes are simple signs in Hungarian, English and Hebrew: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. Erected 16 April 2005.”
Looking at the photo Jo took, I feel much the same as I did when I first saw the shoe memorial. Locked in the image is a tragic story, one of rights trampled, brutality imposed and lives lost that is not easily forgotten.