It was hard to come to terms with the mockery I witnessed from that one man and his group of friends at the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. At first, I was filled with self-righteous anger. How dare they defile the memory of innocent people murdered in such despicable crimes. Then my anger turned inward, I was ashamed of myself for not speaking up. I doubt it would have mattered to them and might even have provoked further bad behavior. Nonetheless, it would have been a sign of resistance. Perhaps nothing would have stopped the man from engaging in an act that defiled the victims. He and his friends did not understand the magnitude of what took place on this river bank during the Siege of Budapest. This was not just a Hungarian or Jewish tragedy, but a tragedy suffered by all of humanity. The product of a profound moral crisis. This was not just about the victims, the “them”, it was also about “us”. What human beings are capable of when they sink into the lowest levels of depravity.
A Coverup As Bad As The Crime – Watery Graves
Ignorance, indifference, carelessness, each of these less than desirable traits of humanity were on display by the man and his friends. These were, still are and always will be the ingredients that breed hatred. Constant vigilance is needed to keep virulent ideologies at bay. Perhaps those that I witnessed making such a mockery of the memorial would have felt a bit differently about their behavior if they knew the specifics of what exactly had happened on those dark days. I doubt they wanted to know. It is easier to look away or allow the memory to languish. That is an all too human reaction to the inhuman, but it is not so easy to forget something that has been seared into humanity’s collective conscious. The memorial was a powerful place that evoked fear, shame and disgust in me. Its minimalism made it that much more arresting.
The absence of any others sculptures or portrayal of the victims left much to the imagination. Me and my wife to be walked away from the river bank that evening with conflicting emotions. The memorial had left us with a lasting impression, but I wondered what could be done about the ignorance and cynicism that man and his friends had displayed. Perhaps there was a story they could have been told that would have put them in the victim’s shoes, not in a moment of mockery, but in one of disturbing reality. The kind of moment that could shift their attitude forever. If only they could have read some of the accounts of those who witnessed or knew about the murders.
It is hard to imagine innocent civilians being murdered within sight or earshot of other civilians. If the thought of it is disturbing now, it is not hard to imagine just how horrifying it was then. So much in fact that the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party members who were murdering Jews indiscriminately in the streets were thought to be increasing the chances of creating sympathy for the Jews among the city’s ethnic Hungarian population. At least that is what those in charge were worried about. This is what brought hundreds of Jews to the banks of the Danube. The river was a way to conceal the victims bodies, at least until it completely froze over. It was a case where the coverup was just as bad as the crime. The river was used to conceal the evidence.
A Society Gone Mad – Turning A Blind Eye
On October 15th the first murders were carried out along the embankment. Just after sunset, 7:32 p.m. to be precise, the police report shows a “suicide” on the Danube bank. “Suicide” was code for murder of a civilian. For the next one hundred days, murders were carried out night and day in the same area. There was no holiday from this horror. As a matter of fact, holidays were just as much an occasion for executions as any other days. Evil does not obey the dictates of normal society, instead it warps and degrades them through its intentions and actions. Documentation shows that murders took place at the on Christmas Day, 1944 at the embankment.
While doing background reading on what happened there, I was shocked to discover that in a city of over a million people only about 4,000 Arrow Cross militia terrorized an entire segment of the population with little to no resistance from a million inhabitants of Budapest. Outnumbered on average by two-hundred and fifty to one, the militia was still able to act with impunity. The police, gendarmerie and military largely turned a blind eye. In this case, silence was complicit as well as deadly. The executions were impossible to ignore on the Danube Bank. Daily life continued right up until the Soviets encircled the city in mid-December. People went about their business despite what was happening around them.
First-hand accounts demonstrate an incredible callousness from some civilians. Two women were reported as saying they felt “sorry for the poor people, but maybe it’s just as well, because then they won’t get a chance to take revenge.” Others coveted the belongings left behind by the Jews and were hoping they would not return to claim them. Some civilians were confronted by shocking scenes of barefoot, thinly clothed Jews being marched down frozen streets to the riverbank. When one man asked an Arrow Cross militiaman who the people were that he was leading, the militiaman sarcastically replied, “the Holy family”. Not long thereafter, the rattle of a machine gun announced another mass murder. And so it went on, from the hundreds into the thousands, until one day it ended and not much was left except for the memory of survivors and witnesses.
A Throbbing Heart – When The River Ran Red
After pages of reading and research I still wonder if there is anything that would cure the ignorance and indifference we witnessed that evening on the banks of the Danube. Education? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Some people never learn or even worse, don’t want to learn or understand. They cannot walk in the victim’s shoes or see through their eyes. If only they could see through the eyes of one girl deep in that deadly winter. The eyes of Zsuzanna Ozsvath, a Jewish girl who survived the murderous maelstrom due to the grace, grit and guile of her nursemaid, Erzsi Fajo. While hiding out in an apartment house within sight of the Danube, Zsuzanna heard what she described as “popping sounds.”
She carefully made her way to the window and looked out to see “two Arrow Cross men…standing on the embankment of the river, aiming at and shooting a group of men, women and children into the Danube – one after the other, on their coats the Yellow Star. I looked at the Danube. It was neither blue nor gray but red. With a throbbing heart, I ran back to the room in the middle of the apartment and sat on the floor, gasping for air.” Zsuzanna knew that this might soon be her fate. A combination of chance, luck and Erszi made sure she survived. Zsuzanna never could wipe away that memory. As she later recalled, it was “worse than anything I had ever seen before, worse than the most frightening accounts I had ever witnessed.” No one deserves to see such an act of inhumanity, but maybe if some people did they would understand what the Shoes on the Danube Bank stand for.