It’s a summer evening in Budapest and I am standing on the banks of the Danube.
Stretching before me is Pauer and Togay’s monument to the victims shot by the Arrow Cross in 1944-5 – the Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial. Sixty pairs of cast iron shoes are abandoned on the edge of the river, placed as if their owners had just stepped out of them.
There is an intimacy and immediacy to this memorial that is striking. The shoes are worn and it’s easy to imagine the people whose feet have shaped them and the moment of their death. Unusually this memorial allows us to contemplate both the individual victim and the wider idea of genocide.
But, there are lots of tourists in town, and as I stand watching I notice that none of them are reading the nearby plaque which states what this memorial is commemorating. Instead, they seem thrilled at finding a piece of public art they can interact with. They slip off their trainers and slide their feet into the shoes of the murdered to pose for photographs…their experience of the memorial providing a digitalised memory of their evening rather than a contemplation of the memory of the owners of the shoes.
The atmosphere here is heavy. The visitors in their tourist uniforms, cameras in hand, zig zag down this street pausing to peer inside each building. A car dissolving into the ground. A wall clock with its workings rusted and exposed. Cooking pots, prams and sewing machines. The detritus of people’s lives slowly rotting where it stood. And in between, incongruously, mown verges and an uncanny neatness indicate the status of a museum.
A minimal amount of information is given, leaving us to construct our own imaginary tableaux of what happened here, inside each house, each shop, inside the church.
As far as memorials go, this one envelops you. It is overwhelming. Who was it that had the presence of mind to say ‘leave it as it is’? Not to move anything? It is not an interpretation of an event, a constructed object to stand in front of and contemplate, but rather the remains of the event itself. And by default we are all in it, in the streets, in this place…implicated.
Nearby is the new village, rebuilt after the war looking down on the untouched remains of what was here before. And I start to wonder what it would be like if every place where an atrocity had happened was abandoned, with life rebuilt alongside. How crowded the world would be…cities nestling together, sometimes in triplicate. Gleaming churches butted up against burnt out originals. Streets that no longer follow a linear pattern as replacement houses are jammed into available spaces. New forests planted alongside old. On and on, until in no time at all, we will have run out of space, crowded out by memories and the dead.
Its early in the morning and I am standing inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz I. The crowds haven’t arrived yet. This dark place has a visceral effect on me.
On a cold day in Berlin I end up thinking about memorials and how we experience them. The frost provides a canvas for people to make their thoughts public.