Sometimes simplicity makes for the most powerful memorials, and that is true of the Shoes on the Danube Promenade where I returned multiple times when visiting Budapest. On the other hand, there is something to be said for largescale remembrance, and that’s true of the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue as it is the largest in Europe and the second-largest in the world.
For quick visiting logistics on these two major WWII sites of Budapest, click here.
Quietly situated on the banks of the Danube River on the Pest side of Budapest, sit sixty pairs of shoes made from iron. There are men’s shoes made for walking, women’s pumps made for dancing, children’s shoes made for growing out of – all of the styles worn in the 1940s.
The view across the river to the Buda Castle is the last view that many Jews of Budapest would see during the atrocities of WWII. The Hungarian Arrow Cross Party would round people up from the nearby ghetto, line them up along the banks of the Danube River and shoot them in the back. During the coldest months of 1944-45, the Danube was called the “Jewish cemetery,” a nickname as chilling as the winter water.
Conceived by film director Can Togay and brought to fruition by sculptor Gyula Pauer, the memorial is as simple as it is powerful. Meant to symbolize the ironclad fact that nobody was safe, young or old, rich or poor, the shoes are also literal in meaning as victims were forced to strip, stepping out of their shoes before turning away from their murderers and toward their fate.
I think of the iron soles on the riverbank as the souls of those who died here reminding us that while atrocities may be committed by a few, they are facilitated by the silence of the multitude.
Plaques behind the heels of the shoes remind visitors that the mass murder committed in Hungary was not at the hands of the Nazi occupiers, but at the hands of the Hungarian Army Cross Militia.
The largest synagogue in Europe and the second-largest in the world, the Dohány Street Synagogue is the center of the Jewish Quarter in Budapest. The towering Moorish synagogue seats 3,000 people and has an important place in the history of Budapest – including a tragic place in the WWII history of the city.
Dohány Street was one of the borders of the Budapest ghetto where 70,000 people were crammed into a far-too-small space during the horrific Hungarian winter of 1944-45. The particularly cold winter in combination with the particularly cruel tactics of Ferenc Szalasi and his Arrow Cross Militiamen led to thousands of deaths in the ghetto where bodies lined the streets.
After the ghetto was liberated by the Soviets on Jan 17, 1945, three mass graves were created around Budapest, including one grave on the grounds of the synagogue. The cemetery in the synagogue garden is a rare site because Jewish tradition separates places of burial from houses of prayer.
A narrow walkway next to the cemetery and garden leads you to the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park behind the synagogue. Here a weeping willow tree represents the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs or the Tree of Life. The branches are heavy with leaves inscribed with the names of some of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian victims murdered during the Holocaust.
On the synagogue complex, and included with the price of admission, is the Jewish Hungarian Museum. Here a collection of artifacts symbolizing the everyday life of Hungarian Jews is on display. The collection was saved from destruction in WWII by two employees of the Hungarian National Museum who hid the artifacts in the cellar.
The exhibit also includes individual stories of Hungarian life during WWII. The stories are amplified by the view from the windows which overlook a piece of the original ghetto walls and the mass grave of those who perished in the ghetto.
Like Vienna, Prague and so many European cities great and quaint, to walk around Budapest is to walk through WWII history. Here are the quick logistics on visiting the Shoes on the Danube and the Dohány Street Synagogue:
The shoes are located on the Pest side of the Danube River just a five-minute walk south of the Hungarian Parliament.
There is no cost to visit the memorial.
The memorial can be visited at any time of day, but the views at sunset over the Danube with the Buda Castle sparkling across the river are magical. Sunset is always a reflective time for me and there are few better places for reflection than this Budapest memorial.
It’s a quiet place to visit. People stand or sit on nearby benches and gaze across the iron shoes toward Pest. Sometimes people leave small trinkets or flowers in the shoes or near the memorial.
Any visit to Budapest will involve a walk along the Danube, which flows between Buda and Pest. Like the Chain Bridge that unites the once separate cities, the memorial unites past and present and reminds us all that it’s our duty to remember what happened here so that history may never repeat itself.
The largest synagogue in Europe is a 20-minute walk from the Shoes on the Danube on the Pest side of the river and in the Jewish Quarter on Dohány Street. Address: Budapest, Dohány u. 2, 1074 Hungary
Admittance with a two-hour group tour costs 27 euros and covers the major sites. There will be a line that moves quite quickly (fast-track advance tickets are available online) and you are organized into groups based on your spoken language. Make sure to ask about closing times before purchasing.
The synagogue opens to the public at 10:00 every day except Saturdays and religious holidays. Closing hours Sunday-Friday vary depending on the season. The synagogue is always closed on Saturday.
The ticket office stops selling 30 minutes before closing time.
It’s best to visit in the morning to avoid crowds.
Men are provided with a head covering upon entering the synagogue. It is recommended to cover shoulders and wear knee-length clothing.
I wore a long dress with short sleeves that covered my shoulders but was chased by a disapproving man who thrust a paper shawl at me because my sleeves were too sheer. It’s the same dress that I’ve worn to the many churches that I’ve visited in my travels and this is the only time that I’ve had any trouble, so err on the side of covering up at Dohány Street Synagogue.
The crowds during high season are a little overwhelming, but the system for moving groups through the synagogue is well organized. Once inside the museum or the gardens, the visit becomes quiet and reflective.
The tours are comprehensive and you will learn about the full history of the synagogue, not just the significant place that the synagogue held as a border of the ghetto during WWII.
The synagogue is beautiful and ornate, decorative in a way that is unusual for synagogues. Its historic place as the border of the Budapest ghetto makes it tragic as well. It is our duty to remember what happened here.
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