As we take a leisurely ride on the bright yellow number 2 tram heading north towards the Parliament building we notice a number of people congregating on the riverside not far from our destination. Intrigued we alight at our stop and, re-crossing the tram line, walk back a couple of hundred metres to encounter an arresting sight; a line of shoes, metal shoes, fixed to the concrete edge blocks of the river bank, giving the impression of being carelessly discarded. 60 items of footwear of many styles and types abandoned there on the banks of the Danube.
But of course, these have not been carelessly abandoned; they comprise a haunting sculpture installed in 2005 by Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer to commemorate one of the many atrocities of World War 2, the 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, who were shot by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen known as “the Nyilas”. The victims were forced to remove their shoes at gunpoint (shoes being a valuable commodity during World War II) and face their executioner before they were shot without mercy, falling over the edge to be washed away by the freezing waters. The sculpture represents the shoes of the victims left behind on the river bank following the atrocities.
Flowers, both fresh and faded, had been placed in and around the shoes in a display of homage and remembrance for those past. Men’s office shoes and workman’s boots, lady’s court shoes and some with heels, some neatly placed together and others sprawled about waiting in vain for their owner to return. Walking along the line the mood gets ever more solemn as we reach one particular item, a shoe somewhat smaller than those around it, could this have belonged to a small adult, or was it a child’s? That thought brings a halt to the progress and more than a moment is spent just looking at that particular piece of iron and wondering.
All along the line of shoes people were squatting and sitting on the embankment, chatting, or just gazing into the waters of the not so blue Danube as if trying to commute with those departed long ago. Such is the emotion surrounding this that you soon find yourself joining those here looking for enlightenment or reason. Staring into the water and eventually that famous Nietzsche quote about the abyss wanders into consciousness and I force myself to return to the here and now and deal with what I see. Feelings of shock, sadness and anger fight for supremacy, how could things have been allowed to get to such a state that made this acceptable? People have probably been asking that same question ever since humans have gathered together for comfort and security, peering over the fence in the fear that someone may come and take away what they have got.
The minutes pass by allowing us to collect up our thoughts and emotions and start to make our way back to the Parliament building and the tram. A few metres upstream from the shoes I notice a statue that I did not given any attention to on our arrival, a rather forlorn, somewhat emaciated, seated figure, cast in a very dark bronze, also looking out over the river in search of some sort of answer. It turns out that this statue is of the early 20th century left-wing Hungarian poet Attila József, who is one the most prominent figures of Hungarian literature and his poems are still taught in every Hungarian primary and secondary school. He had quite a difficult life and in 1937 died at the age of 32 by suicide, although some argue that it really was accident.
Although not apparently directly connected this pair of installations do have the effect of combining the emotions to invoke a solemn, thoughtful state of mind, such that the area could almost be tagged ‘the Reflective Quarter’ for their effect on the people who visit and spend time here. It takes a little time before the feelings stirred up by what we have seen settle themselves down and allow us to carry on and enjoy the city, but the memories made here will remain for a long time.