A River Runs Through It: Budapest

The river, of course, is the Danube, which in my mind is always associated with dance. “Take this waltz,” sings Leonard Cohen in three-quarter time, and I’m back in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, when every school dance (not that I went to that many of them) included a prize waltz as the highlight of the evening. I learned to dance by counting: “one, two, one, two” or “one, two, one.” I remember a particular prize waltz competition when the eliminations were faster and more furious than usual; instead of spotlighting a small group of the best dancers among us, the teachers who were running the shebang eliminated everyone. The dance floor was bare. We thought we were waltzing, but we were all doing the fox trot, the popular dance of the day.

We could have learned to dance by watching the Arthur Murray Party on TV, hosted by Arthur’s wife Kathryn. Those people knew what they were doing and never would have confused a waltz for a fox trot or a lindy hop or anything else. And If we had been serious about it, we could have ordered paper footprints for the various dances. I think there must have been different footprint combinations for men and for women, but I don’t really remember. I do remember that there was a class of waltz—a very classy waltz—called the Viennese waltz, but I’ll save that for another city.

Right now I am on a train leaving Budapest, where Joe and I have spent the past four days. We walked along the Danube, crossed the Chain Bridge, admired the views, both upriver and downriver. We photographed Buda from Pest, where our hotel was, and Pest from Buda, where the castle was. We saw small tour boats, those that took tourists on ninety-minute cruises, and large Viking River Cruise ships looking not quite as spiffy as the ones we used to see in donor videos (i.e., commercials) before every episode of Downton Abbey. Budapest is a beautiful city, and the Danube runs through it.

On both sides of the river the city contains memorials to Hungary’s heroes from various historical periods. Some of these examples of public art employ traditional sculptures of men on horseback, while others vary from the expected by being whimsical in design and execution. The most unexpected, most simple, and, in my opinion, most moving memorial is called Shoes on the Danube. It is on the Pest side, down from street level, close to the water, and it looks at first like a scattering of old shoes perched on the edge of the walkway. The shoes look old, musty, worn out, as if they had been in some old grandmother’s closet since the 1940s. When I searched for further information, I learned that the eighty pairs are not the real shoes but rather replicas cast in iron by the Hungarian sculptor Goulart Pauer. Pauer and his friend Can Togay created the memorial in 2005. A website about the display tells me the following: “The Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the Budapest Jews who were shot by Arrow Cross militiamen between 1944 and 1945. The victims were lined up and shot into the Danube River. They had to take their shoes off, since shoes were valuable belongings at the time.”

According to Wikipedia, Arthur Murray was born in Galicia, Austria-Hungary, in 1895. His parents, Sarah and Abraham Teichman, named him Moses. They brought him to America in 1897 and raised him on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Because of anti-German sentiment after the start of World War I, Moses changed his name to Arthur Murray. He was an immigrant kid who loved to dance and made a career out of teaching others to dance. How would he feel to see the sad shoes of people who never danced again? 

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