Last Updated on January 9, 2023

Budapest, Hungary is one magnificently beautiful European city, a favorite of travelers to the region. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with this fascinating town. The Shoes on the Danube River monument there is a memorial I will always remember.

Budapest’s origins can be traced to Celts who occupied the plains of Hungary in 4th century B.C.  Hungary has long been at the pivotal crossroads of Empires changing hands from the Romans to the Huns, the Turkish Ottoman Empire and most recently, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that lasted into the 20th century.

Given its strategic importance, it is no surprise Hungary and its capital city of Budapest have always known conflict. The monuments, fortifications, and palaces of its many varied rulers attest to this fact.

Walking the Danube promenade, my wife and I came across a long stretch of shoes in the distance. What a puzzling sight. As we got closer, we realized that the shoes were actually made of iron and bronzed to look old. We’d heard someone call this a ‘work of art,’ but then wondered why these shoes would be right on the edge of the riverbank? There are other statues and monuments along the river park sidewalks more inland. Wouldn’t those be a better place to showcase artwork?

The following day, we asked our guide about the intriguing “discovery” of the shoes. She shared with us the heart rendering tale of the Shoes on the Danube River.

Shoes on the Danube monument

The memorial with 60 pairs of iron shoes was erected on April 16, 2005, an idea conceived by Hungarian film director Can Togay with sculptor Gyula Pauer. It honors the Jews and undesirables who were massacred by Hungarian militia belonging to the Arrow Cross Party in Budapest during World War II. More than being an exhibition of art, it represents a dark period in history that should never be forgotten.

These atrocities against Jews and others did not only occur during the early rise of ultra-nationalism in Hungary. The Fascist, ultra-nationalist Arrow Cross militias had been actively engaged in these heinous acts for some time. Late in the War when the Hungarian government attempted to withdraw from the Axis Alliance facing defeat, Nazis overthrew the government and installed an Arrow Cross regime fully committed to Nazi extremism.

It is estimated that during the Hungarian Arrow Cross party’s brief five-month rule and reign of terror, 10,000 Jews were killed in the streets and 80,000 sent to concentration camps. Despite it being clear the Axis Powers would ultimately lose the war, rather than cease and cover up their atrocities, the Arrow Cross actually ramped up its barbarous activities.

Their abject cruelty didn’t end there.

On the Banks of the Danube, these citizens were ordered to remove their shoes (as shoes were valuable and could be resold by the militia) and then shot at the edge of the water during the night so their bodies would fall in and be carried away by the swift current. Some were tied together – one human being shot in the head so the weight of the dead body would pull down the others.

According to a survivor who pretended to be dead, victims were chosen randomly. Everyone rounded up (from groups of 30 up to 100) was taken to the Danube. There are men’s and women’s shoes. Adults and children.

“How a pair of shoes could be worth more than a human life,” I thought to myself.

The Hungarian militia believed the river would cover up their crimes, but the Torah explains that the river is the symbol of time, and time cannot obliterate the memories.

The 60 pairs of period-appropriate shoes do not represent the total number of people executed. That number is much higher. The number 60 represents the 2005 60th anniversary of the massacre.

More than 1,000 people were present at the 2005 Shoes on the Danube River inauguration and The March of Life Foundation marched to the scene with torches. Hungarian churches were represented in solidarity of rejecting the Holocaust’s goals and the massacres which happened 60 years before. A plaque on-site written in Hungarian, Hebrew and English states, “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.”

The somber Shoes on the Danube monument sits on the Pest side of the Danube Promenade near the Hungarian Academy of Sciences just a few hundred meters from the Hungarian Parliament. A poignant depiction of man’s inhumanity to man and a stark acceptance of guilt by a penitent nation. Now years later, newly-lit candles can still be found around the memorial and the metal shoes are often filled with flowers.

It leaves a lasting impression and a visible reminder that Budapest will never forget.

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Author

  • Michael Kompanik

    Michael Kompanik is a retired Navy CAPT and San Diego freelance journalist. His love of Europe began with his NATO assignment to Naples, Italy in the 90s where he traveled extensively to 17 European countries. Since then, trips to Europe are always on his radar.

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4 Comments
  • Teresa Otto
    January 2, 2023

    What a moving article. And the photograph is extraordinary. Thanks for sharing the story.

    • Noreen Kompanik
      January 28, 2023

      Teresa, thank you for reading and commenting!

  • Michele Desoer
    May 13, 2023

    So moving. This has bumped up Budapest in my list of places to visit in Europe.

    • Noreen Kompanik
      May 17, 2023

      Thanks, Michele!