How long do we get to stay here? Whatever it is, I don’t think it will be long enough. So far, we love everything: the people are friendly, the architecture is amazing, the food is great (it’s NOT all goulash), the prices are low, and the weather is fine. I know it’s only been one day, but I thought we would have to make a lot of adjustments, and so far it’s been easy. I thought we would have a hard time getting by only on English: we’d been told that 80% of the people speak nothing but Magyar, and if you wanted to speak English, you’d better find somebody under 25 years old, or else you’d be out of luck. It turns out that in the heart of Budapest, we’ve had no problem at all. Pretty much every restaurant has English somewhere on the menu, or there are pictures you can point to, or we’ve been able to find a waiter who understands enough English that we could get our point across.We’re even learning a little Magyar, wonder of wonders.
One of the things we’ve noticed is that there is art everywhere. There are the typical statues of generals, saints and war heroes as you might expect; there are memorials of various wars; there’s a huge statue on the hill overlooking the city, which was put up by the Soviets to remind the Hungarians of who released them from the Nazis (it has since been repurposed to honor all those who sacrificed their lives for Hungarian liberty).
To Maggie and me, the most powerful memorial was the smallest: a collection of shoes, cast in iron, representing the Hungarian Jews who were executed by the Hungarian Nazi party, the Arrow Cross. The people to be executed were taken to the banks of the Danube and told to remove their shoes. Then they were shot so that their bodies fell into the river. The message being that, to the Nazis, their shoes were more valuable than their lives. You can find more on sculpture and the story behind it here. Thousands of people were murdered in this way, out of the approximately 600,000 Hungarian Jews who were killed, most of them sent to the death camps.
It’s a living memorial: people have added flowers, votive candles and thousands of pebbles to mark their witness to the memorial. While we were there, a dozen people came by to observe, leave a remembrance or to sit on the bank and be present. That’s a part of what we love about this place, too: its long, often sad history isn’t ignored; there is actually an active effort to keep it alive, so the tragic episodes aren’t repeated.