It’s the shoes that make me cry.
We asked our Hungarian guide what it meant and she replied it was controversial – some believed the monument under construction in Freedom Square implied Hungary was also a victim of Nazi aggression during WWII while others thought Hungary should acknowledge its role in sending countless Jews to their deaths. Some admired Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader from 1920 to 1944, while others saw him as a Nazi collaborator and despised him.
But it was hardly controversial to those who had been quietly protesting for 75 days. Their makeshift memorial included photos, candles, letters, and stones (part of the Jewish tradition of leaving a stone when visiting a grave).
There were pleas to “never forget” the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.
We walked to the banks of the Danube – more shoes. These were put here to remind us that in 1944-45, Jews were told to remove their shoes and then shot by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and pushed into the river. As one of our guides said, “They disappeared.” Only their shoes remained behind.
Such tiny shoes.
I thought about the sweetness of a child’s shoe.
As I shared in a post published on April 28, 2014, which was Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah), in my sheltered life growing up in a suburb of Detroit, there was not much conversation about the Holocaust. Perhaps the late 1950’s were still too soon to speak openly about such things. So I struggled to understand how people, who would have included me had my grandparents not decided to immigrate to America, were exterminated just because they were Jewish. I had nightmares about being sent to a concentration camp. It was beyond my comprehension and none of the adults in my life wanted to discuss what had happened and, more importantly, why.
I wonder if, like America in the 1950’s, Eastern Europe is not yet ready for this difficult conversation. In Vienna, our young German-born guide seemed genuinely sorry about what happened. But she was also not able to answer some of our basic questions about current thinking in Austria regarding its role in the Holocaust. On the other hand, our Jewish guide at the Budapest Jewish Museum shared that Hungarians focused on their suffering at the end of WWII and during the Soviet occupation, but tended to underestimate their role in deporting and exterminating Jews during WWII. The same held true in Prague. Our kind, grandmotherly Czech guide, whose family had hidden a Jewish daughter-in-law at great peril during WWII, told story after story of hardships and cruelty at the hands of the Russians. Going to Terezin was painful for her, and she avoided taking people there until recently. But she also shared it that Czech children rarely came there to visit and regretted that they didn’t learn much about the Holocaust in school.
After visiting restored synagogues in Budapest and Prague, after visiting the monument against war and fascism in Vienna, after seeing countless graves covered with stones, after looking at far too many lists of names of people whose date of death was 1944, it was the shoes that hit me like a punch in the gut. It is only luck that separates me from those who perished. My mother’s shoes could have become part of the Prague Living Memorial. No bronzed baby shoes, saddle shoes, or sweet white Mary Jane shoes would have followed for our family.
Life is as fragile and precious as a child’s shoe. And the current generation of children needs to know that such evil happened. This is the only way we have a prayer that it will not happen again.
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