The Invisible

Few river cruises beat the lights that sparkle off the Danube.  As we glide across its dark waters, floodlit places and the spectacular parliament building line the water in a spectacle of light and architectural brilliance.  Budapest truly is a magical city, bold with Hapsburg grandeur, sophisticated in its own quiet way, its streets littered with coffee houses and galleries. Even its synagogues are among some of the most impressive in Europe today, three tiers of seating speak to the scale and sophistication of its once thriving Jewish community.  It is in the emptiness that you notice something is missing here.

At first glance there is nothing amiss with the way in which Hungary is dealing with its Nazi past. The Neolog Synagogue is beautifully restored, mass grave next door dignified and lovingly tended. The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park respectfully honors one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest heroes and copper shoes along the edge of the Danube humanism – that eerily moment when Jews removed their shoes on the bank of the river prior to being summarily shot into its cold waters.

But in truth this place is the invisible.  It is the invisible ghetto wall tucked behind a private courtyard; the invisible history of Hungarian Jewry; the invisible murder of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews slipped away with cunning efficiency to Birkenau; the community of survivors who live out their final years invisible unless you seek them out; the invisible Jews who are not mentioned at the Danube memorial where they were shot in head in broad daylight.

Of course some of this has happened because of what happened.  Hungarian Jewry was affected by two different experiences.  Under the Horthy regime Jewish men were rounded up and sent to work as forced laborers. This was not pleasant, and highly distressing and entirely Antisemitic, but it was not the final solution the Nazis were operating elsewhere.  Then the Nazis took control in March 1944 and the Final Solution arrived.  By this point the Nazi had perfected their art, and knew how to remove a population without bloodshed. There was a relatively orderly evacuation to Auschwitz, leaving the Hungarian towns and cities more or less guiltless.  They provided the manpower and the logistics to remove the Jews, but they don’t have mass graves in every forest, field and cemetery.  Hungary became Judenrein – clean of Jews – it’s conscience spotlessly clear too.  This is the invisible Holocaust. Out of sight. Out of mind.

It may be a sin of omission, but there is reason to suspect it may be the result of many years of commission. Successive governments have made gestures, but rarely been open within their own society about its role and responsibility for the Holocaust.  This might all change next year as the country remembers 70 years since the deportation with a national program of memorial activities – and a new Holocaust museum – in the planning.  What remains to be seen is whether the commitment will be another form of invisibility, or whether it will truly shine a light on Hungary’s role in the success of the Final Solution.

Tourists wander along the Danube, it’s dark waters carrying its invisible load of Jewish blood, washing it far from the eyes of Buda and Pest.  One lady poses among the shoes with a minxy little glance for her boyfriend’s camera, another tourist removes a shoe placing his stocking feet in the iron shoes smiling broadly for the camera when finally he finds one that fits, another couple cuddled together to take their selfie.  It turned out that none of them knew the significance of the rusty shoes dotted along the river wall.  Not surprising really as there is no signage to tell them what happened there. Like all public works of art, it is open to interpretation.  If I happened across a line of iron shoes by a beautiful river, I too would assume the shoes owners had removed them before taking a dip on the beautiful waters.  Who would imagine that in fact they had been stripped, lined in rows of three clinging together right at that spot in their final seconds waiting to take a single bullet through their heads, before plunging to their invisible deaths.

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.