After locking my bike near the famous Hungarian Parliament Building, I walked toward the banks of the Danube River. A group of local guides had tipped me off about an art installation by Hungarian sculptor Gyula Pauer.
Looking down, I found “Shoes on the Danube Bank,” an installation featuring 1940s-style, cast-iron shoes placed at the edge of the river. There are about 60 pairs of these shoes — and personalities —represented, including a woman’s pumps, a man’s work boots and a child’s untied flats.
I thought about unlacing my own sneakers and dipping in my toes, but people don’t swim in this part of the Danube.
Roses and candles left in the shoes were also a good tip-off that “Shoes on the Danube” is no homage to carefree days gone by. Installed near the shoes, a plaque reads: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.”
During that part of World War II, the fascist Arrow Cross party — modeled after Germany’s Nazi party — came into power. Over the winter, they forced Budapest’s Jews from the Budapest Ghetto and into the freezing Danube.
“They were sometimes tied in groups of three and the middle person was shot,” said local guide Barbara, herself a Hungarian of Jewish ancestry.
Barbara, a millennial, also shared that her parents never practiced their religion, but a recent trip to Israel helped her reclaim her Jewish heritage. She added that many Hungarians of her generation have similar stories of rediscovering their religion.
“Judaism has become trendy in Budapest,” she said.
Whether or not that’s true, our fortunate circumstances were not lost on me.
We were two Jews walking away from the banks of the Danube River, our shoes still tied.