Iron Shoes and Cold Hearts
In April 2016 my wife Kathy and I fulfilled a longtime dream to take a Viking River Cruise down the Danube River. The trip exceeded our expectations in every imaginable way.
We cruised past castles, quaint villages and vineyards as we relaxed in the upper deck lounge of our ship, “Freya.” It was magical, one of those instances where you feel as if you have to pinch yourself just to prove you’re not in a dream.
During the last day of our cruise I experienced a sight that left a more profound impression upon me than anything else I’d seen on our trip. Today, more than two years later, hardly a day goes by that it doesn’t return to my memory.
The sight was that of a simple memorial with a simple name: The Shoes on the Danube Bank. Unofficially known as “The Iron Shoes,” the memorial consists of 60 pairs of shoes made of cast iron by Hungarian sculptor Gyula Pauer, fashioned in styles appropriate to the early 1940s. It sits on the Danube Promenade between the river and the Hungarian parliament in the city of Pest (Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, situated on opposite banks of the Danube).
The simplicity of Pauer’s design underscores its poignant message. It is a message that not only endures but becomes more relevant in light of recent events in the United States and across the world.
To fully appreciate that message, you need to understand the historical context of events that inspired Pauer to create The Iron Shoes.
On Hitler’s orders, Miklos Horthy, leader of the government of Nazi-occupied Hungary was overthrown in October 1944 and replaced by Ferenc Szalasi, an ideological acolyte of Hitler. Szalasi established a fascist, antisemitic organization, the Arrow Cross Party, which quickly set about a campaign to brutally and publicly persecute Jews in Budapest and the surrounding area. Approximately 80,000 Jews were caught up in a deliberate death march to the Austrian border.
The brutality reached its peak during the winter of 1944-1945, when an estimated 20,000 Jews were systematically executed in Budapest. The Jews were routinely shot in their backs while facing the Danube at the very spot on the promenade now occupied by the memorial. Their lifeless bodies would then fall into the river where the current carried them away.
However, the depth of cruelty is not reflected in the manner of their execution but by a final indignity imposed upon them by their executioners. Before firing, The Arrow Cross militiamen forced the victims to remove their shoes at gunpoint. Shoes were valuable and not to be wasted because they were in very short supply at this point in World War II. For Budapest’s Jews, it was a final degradation before they were viciously murdered.
Visiting the memorial is a profoundly emotional experience. The 60 pairs of metal shoes lay about in a casual manner, as if their owners had just stepped out of them moments before. But, as you contemplate the scene you realize that you’re looking at a depiction of articles left behind by fellow human beings in what was the last act of their lives.
As I looked out on the Danube on that late April day, I remember thinking that any human being with any shred of empathy could not help but be deeply shaken by those iron shoes and what they represent. In that place at that time, human beings were valued less than the shoes they wore. They were treated as less than human, as animals, even less so.
The memorial stands as a reminder, and a warning, to treat our fellow human beings as equals, lest we face history’s condemnation.
Eighteen months into the Trump Administration I think back to my day on the bank of the Danube. But it is not iron shoes that fill my thoughts today, but images of men, women, and children fleeing from violence and being denied sanctuary.
Today, officials are turning away asylum seekers at ports of entry along the southern border, breaking both U.S. law and our treaty obligations. Many of those seeking protection were separated from their children. Although the president issued a temporary halt to the policy, the administration is replacing family separation with family incarceration.
Done under the auspices of increasing border security—and important issue, to be sure—these policies do not make us safer. All they do is to prevent vulnerable adults, parents, and children from exercising the most basic human instinct: to flee from danger.
These practices fundamentally clash with our national values. We are a country with a proud tradition of global leadership on refugee protection, a nation that President Reagan described as a “beacon” to people seeking freedom.
But the damage we do to our country pales in comparison to the deep and enduring wound we inflict on ourselves.
When we declare any group of people “animals,” we assume the prerogative to treat them in inhumane ways. We can throw them into cages and we can steal their children away. When we do that, when we rob others of their humanity, we do even more grave damage to our own in the process.
And that’s when the heart of any country, including this country becomes as cold as the iron shoes on the bank of the Danube.
Colonel Hickey served a 30-year career in the Regular and Reserve components of the U.S. Air Force. For the majority of his career Colonel Hickey was involved in targeting, the geospatial sciences, weapons and weapon system effectiveness modeling, and operational planning.