Buried beneath every beautiful place I’ve ever visited, whether in my own country or abroad, are historic moments of ugliness — periods of time when the people who inhabitated the place succumbed to the fear, anger and hate that constitute our more depraved nature and lashed out against their neighbors. When the red haze blinds us, neighbors are no longer neighbors, but the sinister “other.”
Hungary is no exception. It would be remiss to visit its capitol, a lovely city with its exterior scrubbed clean, and not peak beneath the surface to see the dirty ugliness of its past. I peak not to be a self-righteous voyeur, but to remind myself of what occurs when we succumb to the darkness that lurks within each of us. Surely, nothing is new under the sun, and if I don’t learn from others, I am handicapped in my pursuit to see light rather than a red haze.
What got me thinking about the red haze was this unusual display I first saw a few days ago.
Gazing upon it from a distance, I thought people had literally left their shoes by the river, but as I drew nearer I realized it was a sculpture and I began to investigate.
I discovered Shoes on the Danube is a monument that commemorates the 20,000 Hungarian Jewish victims killed by the Arrow Cross militiamen, members of a pro-German, anti-Semitic, fascist party in power in Hungary during 1944-1945. The killings usually took place arbitrarily and in large groups. Men, women and children were lined up at the embankment, forced to disrobe and shot in the back to fall into the Danube.
My research into the monument revealed the horrible scope of the Holocaust in Hungary. Even though Hungary was allied with Germany, Hungarian Jews escaped deportation in the early years of the war. That all changed in 1944. In just two months, May and June, 440,000 Jews were deported, most to Auschwitz. Of approximately 825,000 Jews living in Hungary in 1941, about 63,000 died or were killed prior to the German occupation of March 1944. Under German occupation, more than 500,000 died from maltreatment or were murdered. Less than one-third of those who had resided within Hungary in March 1944, survived the Holocaust.
About half of the survivors lived here in Budapest, owing their lives to people like Carl Lutz, the vice-consul for Switzerland stationed in Budapest from 1942 through 1945.
During one of the Danube shooting episodes, Lutz jumped in the river and rescued a wounded woman. He swam back to shore with her and helped her to safety, declaring forcefully to the armed Arrow Cross militiamen that she was under the protection of the Swiss government. Dumbstruck, the militiamen let them go.
Lutz issued tens of thousands of protective documents to Jews and also claimed diplomatic immunity for 72 safe houses scattered around Budapest. He saved 62,000 Hungarian Jews from death while in Budapest.
There are a couple of monuments dedicated to Lutz, who died in 1975, in the city. Today, I visited this one, positioned on the wall of a building where the Jewish ghetto began, to honor the bright light Lutz and others like him cast in a terribly dark period.
And so, as I prepare to leave this beautiful city for another, I see clearly that the Blue Danube isn’t blue at all. It’s just a river like so many others.
Rivers don’t easily give up their dead. Yet, I am not without hope. I remind myself that there are other Carl Lutz’s in the world. Always have been. Always will be.