November is a time to remember those who have gone before. In Hungary, families visit cemeteries, leave wreaths and flowers, light candles and talk about loved ones they’ve lost. For me, it’s a time to think about Hungarians whose lives were lived in the shadow of war, fascism, communism or poverty, and I am once again grateful to have grown up in peace, freedom and prosperity.
My husband and I visited his family gravesite earlier this month with our children, who made a wreath of chestnuts for their great-grandma. Yesterday, I finally visited one of the most moving sights in Budapest: the array of shoes on the Danube bank, in memory of those who were shot into the river during the fascist regime toward the end of World War II. Why shoes? Because they were asked to remove them, shoes being valuable commodities.
The memorial is a small way for tourists and expats to feel the depth of Hungarian history. Having learned Hungarian, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know people who’ve had extraordinary lives, full of tragedy and the occasional triumph, the latter, often mere survival. I’ve heard their stories in bits and pieces over the course of several years. Two of them are no longer with us, and I remember them formally, with my husband and children, on November 1st, and think of them every other day of the year. Each deserves a memoir, a documentary, a film or a monument, but here are their stories, in short:
- A woman whose husband was taken away by the Soviets in 1945, returning after three years, only to die of leukemia just a few years later, after which she became a successful single working mom to her two boys and lived to be 95
- A bank vice-president who escaped with his three-year-old son in 1946 after surviving being taken in for questioning by the much-feared secret police, and after ducking into a doorway to avoid being shot into the Danube
- A neighbor whose parents left to tour the West with the circus when she was 3, and didn’t come back until she was 11, having been constantly bullied at school for having “capitalist” parents
I thought of these people, and all those I never had the privilege to know, as I looked at the shoes. I marveled at the number of candles and flowers that had been placed there. Then I saw one tiny child’s shoe that seemed to have a note in it. It said, in English, “Take me!” and was clothespinned to a red heart made of felt. I opened the note, and inside, it said “All you need is love.” I put it back in the shoe for others to enjoy.
For more information about the Shoes on the Danube Promenade memorial, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoes_on_the_Danube_Promenade. For my collection of photos of the memorial, visit my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AdriKnows.