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A Chance Encounter on the Danube Gave Me Hope for the Future
I missed the point of Budapest's memorial to Jewish genocide. And then I didn't.
This is a reprint of an article from 2021. But we have so many more subscribers now, we decided to publish it again.
Before me was a striking sculpture: sixty pairs of iron “shoes” along the bank of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary.
Officially known as Shoes on the Danube Bank, it’s a memorial to the murder of thousands of Jews by the fascist Arrow Cross Party during WWII. I’d read a lot about it, and it had been on my “must see” list of things to see in the city.
And by “must see,” I mean “must photograph.”
I knelt on the concrete ground, intent on getting the perfect picture. Who cares if it hurt my knees? I was especially pleased the day was grey and chilly, adding an extra air of somberness to a very somber piece of art.
I focused on one pair of workman’s boots.
Someone had decorated the sculpted shoes with a bouquet of bright red flowers. I wanted to capture the contrast between the flowers, the rusted shoes, and the dreary-looking Danube in the background.
This is good, I thought. I bet this will get a lot of likes on Instagram, especially with a poignant caption.
I kept clicking away. It was only a matter of time before I had “the shot.”
Then I heard a voice behind me. “Excuse me?”
I turned. It was a young, dark-haired woman — the only other person in the area.
“May I ask a question?” she asked. Her English was good, only a slight Italian accent giving away her nationality.
“Of course,” I said.
She nodded to the iron shoes. “What is all of this?”
I explained about the memorial — how in the 1940s, the fascist Arrow Cross Party had routinely lined up Jewish men, women, and children along the river, shot them, and pushed their dead bodies into the river. But since shoes were valuable during the war, they were made to remove them first, so they could be reused or sold.
The young woman’s eyes widened. She even took a step back from me — or maybe from the shoes.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to be so blunt.”
She shook her head. “No, it’s fine. I had just been thinking ‘Wow, this is an interesting sculpture.’ And then to find out what it all means…”
“I really am sorry.”
She stared at the shoes. “It’s okay. I just have a very hard time with things like this. I don’t understand how people can do things like this.”
“I don’t understand either,” I said. “And I’m older than you, so I’ve had more time to figure it out. I was at Terror House today. It left me more confused than ever.”
“What’s Terror House?”
I explained it was another of the city’s memorials — the building where the Arrow Cross Party, then the Nazis, and then the communists, had all tortured and murdered anyone who opposed them.
This time I tried to be less blunt, but I explained how the entire building has been transformed into an exhibit. “You explore the upper floors, which have museum-like displays explaining the history. Then you take a very slow elevator ride down into the darkness of the building’s basement, where you see the concrete cells where the actual tortures took place.”
“That sounds terrible,” she said.
“The history is terrible. But it’s a very effective memorial.” I shrugged. “When I was your age, I used to go to something like Terror House or this” — I gestured at the shoes — “and I’d think ‘Okay, that was a truly awful time, a low-point for humanity. But that’s in the past, and we learned our lesson. We’ve gotten better.’ But lately…”
She nodded. “It feels like things are going in the wrong direction again, doesn’t it? Afghanistan, Trump, the government here in Hungary. Even in Italy.” She looked off across the grey river.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The world really does feel crazy right now. I apologize that my generation did such a crappy job and left you guys such a mess.”
She offered me a small smile. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think my generation is not much better.”
Our eyes drifted back to the shoes.
I felt stupid I’d come here to take pictures. Talk about missing the point of those forlorn, empty shoes. Although what was the point if the world really was going backward?
We both fell silent, shifting a little in our own real shoes. I didn’t know this person — she was just a random person I’d met. What did we have in common?
I decided it was time to move on.
But something kept me standing alongside her. To my surprise, she didn’t seem in any hurry to leave either.
Finally, I said, “I’m Michael.”
“That’s a lovely name,” I said. Whenever I compliment a woman, I sometimes worry she might think I’m hitting on her, so I quickly added, “My husband and I are visiting Budapest for a week. But he had work to do, so he stayed in the hotel.”
My phone buzzed, and I checked it.
“Speak of the devil,” I said. “That’s Brent. I guess I lost track of time. I’m supposed to be picking up dinner.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ve kept you from him.”
“No, not at all. But I should get going.” I pointed in the direction I was heading. “I’m headed that way.
She brightened and said, “Me, too.”
With an unspoken mutual agreement, we set off together.
And kept talking. The conversation flowed so easily and naturally, I felt I’d known her far longer than half an hour.
We discussed Brent and our lives as digital nomads, which excited Manjusri a great deal. She loved hearing we were both writers — and shyly shared she had an idea for a fantasy novel. I asked about her life in Austria, where she lived now.
Finally, we reached the point we had to go our separate ways.
She said, “If you’re ever in South Tyrol” — this was the Italian province where she grew up — “you have to let me know. I’ll tell you where to go.”
“I will,” I said. “And I’m so glad you asked me about the shoes. I’m sorry it was sometimes so heavy, but I truly enjoyed our conversation. Meeting you.”
She beamed. “I did too. I don’t usually have such deep conversations with strangers.”
I confessed that right before we’d spoken, I’d been so focused on my photographs, I’d totally missed the point of the shoes.
“But I wonder if maybe part of the reason for the sculpture is conversations like this one,” I went on. “It brought two strangers together. We made a connection.”
“We did,” she agreed.
And if we humans really are going to prevent more shoes on the Danube in the future, I thought, we’re going to need more connections like this one.
We quickly exchanged contact information and said good-bye.
“Tell your husband I really am sorry,” she said.
I laughed. “I will!”
As I headed back to the hotel, I thought, You never did get that perfect picture.
And I couldn’t have cared less.