Army of Men

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Shoes on the Danube

July 2015

The shoes on the Danube in Budapest. My God, what a stirring monument.

I didn’t want to go. I knew I would see the suffering of those who lost everything near that calm water. I knew the scenes would play out in my head like a movie, and I would feel what it was like to be standing on a river bank, and to wait your turn while Nazi soldiers shot each of your family members in the head.

It was hard not to picture the soldiers standing on the river bank with their guns, waiting for the next batch of helpless innocents to be ripped from their homes. Yet instead of human faces, I imagined that the soldiers’ faces were those of monsters.

They were but one small contingent in an entire army of monsters.

But it wasn’t an army of monsters. It was an army of men. Of real men. Men with families. And they all pulled the trigger or watched the trigger being pulled. Instead of turning their guns on themselves or on each other for the horrors they committed, they murdered husbands and wives. They murdered parents. They murdered children.

I heard the screams. I saw the victims crying out when a loved one fell into the Danube.

My wife told me there were also the shoes of children. Thank God I didn’t see those. I cried enough as it was. I’m crying now. I saw one shoe, a young woman’s shoe, without its match. I imagined her slipping off one shoe. She was crying and then they shot her mother or her father or her little brother. She refused to take off her second shoe, maybe because she couldn’t move, maybe because she had resolved to be pushed no farther. She stood there shaking her head, her body quaking, and they shot her anyway. She fell into the river with only one shoe. A normal man shot her. Not a monster. A man.

There are no platitudes to fall back on here. “The SS would have killed the soldier’s family if he disobeyed.” So what? You kill a hundred other families instead? “Someone else would have done it in my place.” So what? It wouldn’t be you. You can’t be alive if you have no soul. Is it better to die than to commit mass murder? The answer is obvious.

A tour guide’s mother had a girlfriend who survived being lined up on the bank of the Danube and shot in the head. She was pulled from the water downstream along with the dead bodies of her entire family. She recovered, but I have no doubt her life after that was only a shadow. A whisper of wholeness. I hate to imagine what she saw every time she closed her eyes.

These men, these normal men, not only did they shred the last bit of humanity from those they murdered, but they also ensured that anyone who survived would do so with an irreparably fractured soul. They left holes in their wake, not just in the landscape but in the hearts of their victims.

Heed not your leader if he tells you to kill the innocent.

Gather your friends and turn your guns on your leader, and try not to be surprised when his bodyguards step out of the way because they’d been praying for someone like you to come along.

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