One of the highlights of my recent Danube river cruise aboard Uniworld’s stunning River Beatrice was a brace of days spent exploring Budapest. As one of the joint capitals of the former Austro-Hungarian empire (the other is, of course, Vienna) Budapest is literally studded with swathes of monumental architecture. The sheer collective opulence on display is almost overwhelming.
And yet, the most moving of all Budapest monuments is riveting for its sheer, stark simplicity. Spread along the banks of the Danube itself, not far from the great Parliament building, are some sixty random, scattered pairs of shoes. Cast from bronze, they face outward, toward the Danube where their wearers spent their last, fear fuelled minutes before being shot by members of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian equivalent of Hitler’s SS. Though the great majority of this poor, doomed mass of humanity was of Jewish origin, there is no doubt that some personal scores were also settled in those dark, dying days of World War Two.
It is a truly moving sight and, as such, it merits some historic context.
By March of 1944, it was obvious to most savvy people that Germany was going to lose the war, and probably sooner rather than later. No one was more conscious of this than Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary. Coerced into a military alliance with the Third Reich, the Admiral- with one eye firmly on his own self preservation- began making tentative overtures to the western allies for a peace deal. Unfortunately, Hitler got wind of these, and acted rapidly to forestall them.
That same month, German troops and armour began pouring into Hungary, ostensibly to ‘protect’ their wavering ally from the Russian hordes already looming in the foothills of the Carpathians. Horthy was allowed to remain in power, as what amounted to little more than a German puppet. But his reprieve carried one major, awful condition…
Prior to 1944, the estimated one million Jews living in Hungary had been protected from the racial excesses and genocidal policies of the Nazis. As such, they represented the largest concentration of unharmed Jews still existing within the boundaries of the now terminally contracting Third Reich. All of that would now change.
To Budapest came the the psychotic, ice cold Adolf Eichmann. Soon, conga lines of trains began rolling, fully laden with generations of doomed Jewish families, towards the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Under Eichmann’s meticulous eye for detail, this death machine ran with pitiless efficiency for four months. And then, something happened that surprised everyone.
Horthy over ruled Eichmann, and halted the deportations.
Ever the realist, the Admiral was once again acting to save his own skin. Just days before, an announcement was made via the Allied leaders, to the effect that any enemy leader found guilty of abetting mass genocide would pay the severest penalties. With an Allied noose no doubt metaphorically tightening on his windpipe, Horthy simply stopped the trains from running.
At that time, Adolf Hitler had his hands full, attempting to stem a rising tide of military disasters in both western and eastern Europe. But, by September, he had somehow managed to gain a breathing space. And his baleful, disapproving eye returned to an unexpectedly truculent Hungary.
By now, Russian troops had simply steamrollered through Bulgaria and Romania. Hitler’s eastern allies had collapsed like a house of cards. And, once again, Horthy- knowing that Hungary was next- began making peace overtures to the western allies.
Again, Hitler learned of this and, as so often before, he simply reverted to gangster tactics to get what he wanted. Horthy’s beloved son- a renowned international playboy- was kidnapped by German commandos. Rolled up in a carpet, he was literally unravelled at Hitler’s feet. A mortified Horthy was told that his son was now a ‘guest’ of the Third Reich. Naturally, there were certain terms that related to his continued well being.
Chief among these was the Admiral’s immediate resignation. Horthy folded like so much wet cardboard. In his place, Hitler appointed Ferenc Szalasi to rule the nation.
Szalasi was the leader of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazi SS. Deeply anti-Semitic and blindly obedient to Hitler, Szalasi and his thugs could be relied on to implement every order from Berlin with hateful zeal. Indeed, their enthusiasm for their grisly work earned them the approval of the returning Eichmann himself. Soon, the death trains began rolling out of Budapest at a manic rate.
By the time he took power, Szalasi was the ruler of a country that had already been one third overrun by the Red Army. As that same army gathered to lunge at Budapest in overwhelming strength, large German panzer formations- desperately needed elsewhere- poured in to shore up the creaking Hungarian front.
From that same October onward, some of the largest tank battles of the entire war took place on the plains of Debrecen, just outside of Budapest. Time and again, desperate German counter attacks threw the Russians back, only for yet more new Russian units to press forward. The end result was inevitable. On Christmas Eve 1944, the Red Army surrounded Budapest, and began fighting it’s way into the city. Trapped inside with the terrified population, some 70,000 German and Hungarian troops prepared to face the red tide looming all around them.
With the railway lines to the death camps now closed forever, the Arrow Cross began rounding up the surviving Jewish population with savage determination. Many of these were simply marched down to the Danube, near the famous chain bridge. There they were made to take off their shoes and stand on the water’s edge. There, the Arrow Cross simply shot them, watching the bodies fall into the Danube. Of this pitiful, huddled mass, those who did not die instantly simply froze to death as they drifted down the icy, fast flowing river.
Meanwhile, the Germans outside Budapest mounted a major effort to relieve their trapped comrades in the city. In early January 1945, the first counter attack took the Russians by surprise, and made rapid headway. That first attempt came so close to success that the encircled troops could hear the gunfire of the attacking columns. Then, with success within their reach, Hitler halted the attempt. That same success had emboldened him to launch a larger, more ambitious offensive that ultimately failed massively.
Another attempt in mid January also came very close to a breakthrough but, once again, interference by Hitler snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Red Army’s noose around the city began to tighten. Inside, the German and Hungarian defenders now knew that the game was truly up.
That knowledge simply intensified their rage towards the Jewish population. Knowing that they could expect no mercy from either the Russians or their fellow countrymen, the Arrow Cross and the SS- men who knew full well that they were on the cusp of death themselves- turned their own fear and savagery on the remaining Jews of Budapest.
By mid January, the Russians had fought their way through much of the flat, industrial Pest half of the city. Typically, Hitler ordered resistance to the last man. For the terminally deranged Fuhrer, Budapest had become as much of an obsession as Stalingrad some three years earlier, and the ferocity of the fighting there was every bit as vicious. In all, some eighty per cent of the buildings in Budapest- one of the most beautiful cities on earth- were either damaged or, more often, totally destroyed. Even today, the beautiful buildings of the Castle District are still pock marked with hundreds of bullet holes.
That same mid January, as the remnants of the German and Hungarian garrison retreated across the Danube to make a final stand on the heights of Buda’s Castle District, the Arrow Cross embarked on one last round of shootings. The retreating German and Hungarian troops blew all the bridges across the river as they went. Even by their reviled standards, the actions of the Arrow Cross that day were especially pitiless.
Running short of ammunition, the Arrow Cross got creative. They forced two people at a time to stand back to back, bound them together, stood them on the river bank, and simply shot the nearest one in the head. As both toppled into the river, the weight of each corpse simply drowned anybody that might have survived the shootings.
It took the Russians until mid February of 1945 to finally reduce the enemy resistance. By that time, Budapest was a shattered, blackened corpse of a city. And of Hungary’s Jewish population of one million people, more than 600,000 were murdered by the Nazis and their disciples in the Arrow Cross.
As for Szalasi himself, he had fled Budapest just a few days before it was surrounded, and he maintained leadership of a Hungarian rump government until the end of the war. Taken back to Budapest after being captured in Munich by American troops, he was put on trial by the post war, Soviet installed Communist government, and hanged in public-aptly in Budapest itself- on March 12th, 1946.
Today, the Shoes Memorial stands as a taut, jarring, moving memorial to the estimated 10-15,000 victims of the Arrow Cross. Inaugurated in 2005, it features some sixty pairs of shoes in all shapes and sizes, including those of children.
Since I was first in Budapest, many of these shoes have become tiny shrines, with small stones, candles and flowers used to fill them. If there is a more pitiful, yet simply powerful memorial to the sheer, mindless brutality of evil, I have yet to see it for myself.