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Whether you are staying in Buda or Pest it is guaranteed during your visit to Budapest that you will find yourself strolling along the edges of the Danube somewhere and at some point. Whilst the views are spectacular and the moments timeless I urge you to stop by what I consider to be one of the most moving memorials that can be found openly in this fantastic city, and possibly in Europe.
History has been made in Budapest for numerous positive and negative reasons and there is probably not enough web space to tell each individual moment; but what we can do as residents or tourists is take a brief period of reflection to consider what has occurred that allows us to be here today. The location and impact of ‘Shoes on the Danube’ definitely allows for that to happen and if you allow me to offer a brief insight into this memorial I hope it will be added to one of the sights that you visit here in Budapest.
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Miklós Voglhut will not be a name synonymous with the majority of people but his story is just one of many linked to the Shoes on the Danube. Born in 1898 to an artistic Jewish family he decided from an early age that a career in music and theatre was what he wanted to pursue; his brother was a clarinet and saxophonist whilst his nephew was a well renowned jazz musician. His individual career gathered pace, but by 1924 there was large scale anti-semitism sweeping across Hungary and Europe, this led Miklós to change his name to a more Hungarian sounding stage name... and so Miklós Vig came into being (Vig in Hungarian means cheerful or merry).
He was a student of Géza Boross and his talent was discovered by Dezső Gyárfás and Antal Nyáray. He had his first major successes at the Intim Kabaré as a soloist, and later performed frequently in other cabarets including the Budapest Operetta Theatre and Budapest Orfeum. Although he made many recordings, he became most famous as a singer of popular music on the radio. A 1935 article in Színházi Élet describes Miklós as a singer of popular sentimental songs.
According to Gramofon (the Hungarian Jazz and Classical music magazine) Miklós was considered part of the first generation of recorded Hungarian musicians. When Deutsche Gramophone found themselves falling behind the competition, they signed Miklós who ultimately became their first dance-music star "beloved all around the country." As a comedian, he performed in the early 1920s at various cabarets including the Rakéta Kabaré - occasionally with female partner Annus Nagy.
In the harsh winter of 1944 despite the fact he did not have a Jewish name and had married into a catholic family Miklós was rounded up along with others from the ghetto by the ruling Arrow Cross Party for Jewish activities. Like many before him and many more after him he was forced to strip naked on the banks of the Danube and face the river; a firing squad then shot the prisoners at close range in the back so that they fell into the river to be washed away. This was a common practice that occurred during 1944-1945; although the Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg did save many more from this terrible fate.
Sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay have created a moving memorial to these Holocaust atrocities that sits in front of the magnificent Parliament building on the edge of the river. What visitors will see are 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia (the shoes depict children, women, businessmen, sportsmen etc.). Behind the sculpture lies a 40 meter long, 70 cm high stone bench where at three points are cast iron signs, with the following text in Hungarian, English, and Hebrew: "To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45. Erected 16 April 2005."
During a visit to the shoes memorial you may see relatives lay flowers, wreathes or light candles to honour the fallen who have given their lives; whilst at night under the ethereal glow of flickering candles and the moon the sculpture presents a very different image of solitude. Take a moment to stop by these shoes and reflect on how fortunate we all are...