The Danube promenade in Hungary’s capital Budapest is both spectacular and serene. The clean, deep, gentle waters beckon one for a swim, the breeze buoys one’s mood and the view on both sides of the river bank makes one want to just keep watching and strolling forever. What with the bewitching Buda Castle looming high on one side and the Hungarian Parliament poised gracefully at the end of the other bank, little wonder that the Danube riverfront has been declared a UN World Heritage site.
Just then one catches sight of several pairs of footwear in the distance, untidily littered along the edge of the embankment. The first thought that fleets through one’s mind is that it is perhaps a spot specially created for tourists to untie their shoes and dip their feet into the flowing waters of the Danube. But drawing nearer, one is further intrigued to see flowers, candles and other paraphernalia around the footwear, with a few tourists standing, squatting or kneeling, a solemn demeanour adorning their faces, some even having closed their eyes, as if uttering a quiet prayer.
A few more strides and you realise that the footwear is not for real but metal sculptures which are part of the beautiful and thoughtful memorial called ‘Shoes on the Danube’. Conceived and designed by Hungarian film director Can Togay and sculptor GyulaPauer, ‘Shoes on the Danube’ is dedicated to the victims, a huge majority of them Jews, who were executed by Arrow Cross, a fascist political party which governed Hungary under the leadership of Ferenc Szálasi, after the Germans occupied the country in 1944 towards the end of World War II.
The moving memorial is a touchingly creative representation of the abominable reality of those five short months (October 1944 – March 1945) of Arrow Cross rule, during which an estimated 10,000 Jews and other unfortunate Hungarians were brought to the banks of the Danube, asked to remove their shoes and then shot point blank, so that their bodies fell into the river to meet an icy death and burial.
Installed in 2005, the memorial comprises 60 pairs of iron footwear — of men, women and even children, sculpted with great attention to detail in capturing footwear types and styles of that era — shoes, sandals, sportswear, heels etc. Even more poignant is the effort that has gone into designing the poses of disarray in which the footwear have been placed — so that one can almost visualise the distress and panic of the past few moments of the victims, as they scrambled to remove their footwear and were lined along the banks, shivering and terrified, awaiting the bullets that would plunge them into the freezing depths of the Danube. They were asked to remove their shoes was because footwear was a valuable war commodity and was in great demand in the black market.
As one stares at the shoe sculptures, the beauty of the Danube and the magnificent surroundings seems to pale. Squinting at the water, one can’t help wondering whether the blood of all those killed on these very banks had turned the blue waters of the second largest river in Europe, red. What also strikes one is the appalling conspicuousness with which the killings must have been conducted. Moreover the cold logic of shooting the victims on the riverfront, so that their corpses could be carried away by the flowing river was nothing short of fiendish.
“To the memory of victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. Erected 16 April 2005” reads the memorial plaque and even as one strolls away finally, the forlorn footwear remains chiselled into one’s memory forever.
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