January 7, 2011
I got a flurry of e-mails (I define flurry as “more than five,” and I got six), asking about a photo I posted last fall showing a lineup of shoes and overturned boots along a river promenade. “What is it?” they asked.
It’s the Holocaust Memorial in Budapest, Hungary. I got down on my belly to take this shot. The memorial is 40 metres long on the Pest side of the Danube — in the shadow of the Hungarian Parliament Buildings — and shows 60 pairs of 1940s-style cast-iron shoes belonging to men, women and children.
Through the summer and winter of 1944 and 1945, when the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was in Budapest, he worked around the clock to save the Jewish population from Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross officers. Many had already been deported to extermination camps around Europe. Wallenberg arranged for hundreds of Jews to be housed in buildings he rented around the city, including the Swedish Embassy, and defined these buildings as “off-limits” to the fascists.
It worked until it didn’t. On the night of January 8th, 1945 (66 years ago tomorrow), the Jews Wallenberg had been hiding in an apartment on Üllöi Street were rounded up by leather trench coat-wearing officers and lined up along the promenade, their backs to the river. As the Arrow Cross execution brigade waved their machine guns back and forth, releasing a barrage of bullets, their victims fell into the river.
My dad and I observed this memorial together. Years ago, he was the one who introduced me to Elie Wiesel’s Night. He pored over it with the same quiet intensity as Anne Frank’s Diary, which we both re-read in one sitting back in our hotel room in Amsterdam, two weeks after Budapest.