The Shoes

During my recent overseas adventure, I visited both Nuremburg, Germany and Budapest, Hungary, among other locations. These two cities, especially in combination, were intensely moving.

My husband’s family immigrated from the Austrian-Hungarian empire in the early 1900s. The area had been ravaged by multiple wars followed by desperate economic strife and geographic displacement of the residents – not to mention changing national borders. However, that history, as difficult as it was, was overshadowed a few years later by the horrible history of the Nazi era. It’s a good thing his family left when they did, because they would likely have not escaped later. Many did not.

He probably would not have been on this earth today.


It’s sad that a city lives in infamy for its worst moments. Thankfully, today, rather than attempt to whitewash the past, the Nuremburg citizens realize that they can use the past as a source of education about what they refer to as “our dark time in history.”

Wikipedia contains a short description about Nuremburg history during this timeframe:

Nuremberg held great significance during the Nazi Germany era. Because of the city’s relevance to the Holy Roman Empire and its position in the centre of Germany, the Nazi Party chose the city to be the site of huge Nazi Party conventions — the Nuremberg rallies. The rallies were held 1927, 1929 and annually 1933–1938 in Nuremberg. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 the Nuremberg rallies became huge Nazi propaganda events, a centre of Nazi ideals. The 1934 rally was filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, and made into a propaganda film called Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). At the 1935 rally, Hitler specifically ordered the Reichstag to convene at Nuremberg to pass the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws which revoked German citizenship for all Jews and other non-Aryans. A number of premises were constructed solely for these assemblies, some of which were not finished. Today many examples of Nazi architecture can still be seen in the city.

We all know what happened next.

As a member of the human race, one my biggest fears is that discrimination, racism and misogyny on this level will once again manifest itself.

Visiting Nuremburg, seeing those places for myself was at the same time sobering and spine-chilling. The cavernous locations of Hitler’s rallies, large enough to encompass a full city block and drive multiple busses around inside the arena. The arena below was filled with people and you’re only seeing about one fourth of the size.

The now-silent cheers of Hitler’s legions of Nazi supporters haunt this place, those who would advance his agenda and follow his lead to condemn millions of Jews and other “undesireables” to death – simply because of how they looked or their religion. Fear-incited genocide propagated by a charismatic leader sewing fear and mass hysteria.

Hitler is known for systematically killing Jews, but they weren’t his only targets. Additionally, he singled out LGBTQ individuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Roma gypsies, Poles and other Slavic peoples, Jehova’s Witnesses, blacks, mixed race “mulattos” and members of political opposition groups. According to the Virtual Jewish Library, Hitler killed more than 11 million people in total – 6 million Jews and 5 million others.

Eleven. Million. People.

Think about that for a minute.

New York City’s’s estimated population in 2016 was only 8.5 million. Eleven million is the size of New York City and Chicago, combined. The equivalent populations of both of those cities, today, died at Hitler’s hands.

In 1986, the Hands Across America benefit united 6.5 million people in a human chain from literally sea to sea. If every person stood 4 feet apart, 6.5 million people would have covered the contiguous 48 states. So, 11 million people standing shoulder to shoulder would stretch about the same distance – or standing at 4 feet – across America – twice.

By Buchoamerica at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Eleven million is an astounding number. I have to ask myself, how did Hitler, or anyone, manage to convince so many Europeans that the horrific murder of 11 million people was not only alright, but justified, AND convinced them to assist and abet this mass murderer by either willfully participating or turning a blind eye?

And in case you’re feeling particularly self-righteous as an American, our collective hands were not without bloodstain. In 1939, a ship, the MS St. Louis, carrying 937 Jewish refugees sailed from Hamburg first to Cuba, where only 29 individuals were allowed to disembark, and then to Florida and Canada seeking asylum, where the ship was not allowed to dock. The ship’s captain subsequently attempted to find safe haven for his passengers in European ports, having no place left to go, but 254 of those turned away by Cuba, the US and Canada were subsequently killed in the Holocaust after the ship and her 907 remaining passengers (one died in route) were forced to return.

Turning a blind eye to fellow humans is aiding and abetting. Failing to condemn horrific behavior is aiding and abetting.

The poem, “First They Came,” was written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a former Nazi supporter who survived a Nazi prison. His poem addresses the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis‘ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

And then, there are the heroes, like Sir Nicholas Winton who saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazi death camps. For a tear jerker, watch Nicholas meet those children decades later as adults. Just ordinary people – look at them. Get the Kleenex, because you will not get through this with dry eyes, I guarantee. You’re in good company, because neither could Nicholas.

Speaking about Nicholas, the Dalai Lama said,

“We must carry his spirit generation to generation.”

To forget history, or to ignore it, is to repeat it.


A few days after Nuremberg, we arrived in the lovely city of Budapest, an incredible combination of the old medieval city shown by the spires in the distance combined with a cosmopolitan modern city that was sporting the international diving championships (the blue scaffold) along the Danube while we were visiting.

Having injured my knee at the beginning of the trip, I was skipping out on many of the walking tours, because I simply couldn’t handle that many hours on my feet.

However, as we returned to the ship after a bus tour in the morning, I noticed the shoes.

The tour guide, busy talking about the diving championships, didn’t say anything about the shoes, but I knew immediately what they were when I saw them.

In 1944 and 1945, 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, were killed in Budapest by the Hungarian fascist party by being lined up on the banks of the Danube River, ordered to remove their shoes, then shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were whisked away – like so much human rubbish.

By Tamas Szabo at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial was created with 60 period-appropriate shoes cast of iron and affixed along the riverbank for 40 meters. If all 3,500 pairs of feet had been represented, shoes side by side, the memorial would have stretched for the length of more than a mile.

I walked alone along the riverbank on a sweltering summer afternoon in the middle of a heat wave named Lucifer for its punishing intensity, the sun searing and miserable. This memorial is not something you should be comfortable seeing. Discomfort, as well as pain, was welcome and appropriate – and nothing compared to what those people, and their families, endured.

Can you imagine the fear, the horror of seeing your family members, your parents, your siblings, your children, murdered – and knowing you were marching to your sure and certain deaths? The only unknown was how much you would suffer, and for how long.

And it wasn’t just Jews, but anyone who had the audacity to speak up for what was right, which was politically very unpopular – unpopular to the point of death. Death, intimidation, torture, murder, subjugation and annihilation was the Nazi way.

As my gaze was fixed on the empty shoes representing this waste of humanity, I was struck by how much potential was washed away, not just with these 3,500, but with the 11 million in total. How many never contributed to the good of humanity, but would have? Did the person destined to save us from cancer die? What is the unknown cost to us all?

After all, we all bleed blood – the great equalizer, along with birth and death.

What did we do to ourselves, not only with the wasted lives and unrealized potential of those who died, but with the horrid gash we inflicted upon our own souls?

I didn’t want to look, yet I couldn’t look away. I could see their bodies falling into the water, gasping for breath, hopefully, mercifully, dead by the time they hit the water. I pray their deaths were at least swift.

None of us can afford to look away. We must, in the name of humanity, prevent this from ever happening again.

I spent the afternoon alone, in contemplative silence, although surrounded by other walkers.  I sat behind and among the shoes, reflecting not only upon the deaths of so many innocents, but the challenges we face today in a worldwide atmosphere where rampant hatred and discrimination based on the slight differences of human form and our different religious choices seems to be making a virulent comeback.

I felt shame that we, in a global sense, and as individuals, let this happen. That we failed so many.  We must never let it happen again. We must be wiser now.

More the Same Than Different

The DNA of all humans is 99.9% the same, with very few differences. While we depend upon those differences for genetic genealogy, for the most part, we match every other living human.

Remember how many people whose DNA you match that you didn’t expect and don’t know, but you’re somehow related to?

Think about how many of those 11 million people that died you were related to.

Think you’re not?

I have over 30,000 matches among Ancestry’s data base of 5 million – and even if you generously subtract 25% with the assumption they are false positives, that means that I’m related to about 22,000 of 5 million people I don’t know. That means that I would probably have been related to many of the people who died in the Holocaust, maybe between 45,000 and 60,000 of them. That brings it a lot closer to home.

I’m not Jewish, and still, I’m sure that some of my relatives died.  Assuredly, my husband’s did.

The Future

The Holocaust is no longer simply a lesson in history that happened three quarters of a century ago, it’s a dire warning about what is happening today as well.


Today we have Charlottesville. The re-emergence of the horrific.

Today we hear, on our own soil, horrible racial and anti-Semitic epithets, espousing hatred and bigotry. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter who leads this country or which party is in power, wrong is wrong.

Hatred is hatred.

Seeds of discrimination and hatred sew discrimination and hatred that leads to violence which is the exact scenario that led to Hitler’s massive genocide.

Refusal to condemn and combat hatred and discrimination on an individual level, as well as a national level, simply begets more of the same. We’ve already seen where that leads. Do we have to go there again?

The recorded history of the world, to date, has been punctuated repeatedly by horrific wars (30 Years War, Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI and II with its atomic bomb, to name a few), slavery (African, Native American, Moorish and English, as a beginning) on every continent except Antarctica, genocide (Native American, Jewish, South American, African, as examples) and the murder and/or displacement of millions of people due to their religious differences (Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, aboriginals, perceived witches and the Crusades for starters).

Not one of us lives today whose ancestors weren’t affected by these factors.

Not. One.

Probably every single one of us had ancestors who were enslaved, killed or displaced – one way or another suffering at the hands of other humans within a genealogical timeframe. On this continent – Acadians, Native Americans and Africans come quickly to mind. In the UK, Catholics and the Irish.  The list goes on – all at the hands of a ruling class that either lost or never had a moral compass.

Are we condemned to repeat that past?

Not on my watch.

Never again.

Not if I can do anything about it.

Not as long as there is a breath in my body.

In the words of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Nelson Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

I hope that our DNA connections show us how much we have in common with others and serve to bring us together as the human race, celebrating our diverse roots and our humanity. Remember, the Momondo DNA Journey where 67 people were tested to celebrate diversity around the world and travel to where their ancestors were from? Take a look, here for one example. It’s an amazing story, really, that challenges pre-conceived notions and biases.

In one participant’s words:

“There would be no such thing as, like, extremism in the world, if people knew their heritage like that.”

We’re all cousins.

Remember The Shoes…

…and pray, pray, that no one ever has to stand in them again.

This time, it could be you.



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51 thoughts on “The Shoes

  1. Excellent piece. Such wisdom. If only our country would remember and teach history, good and bad; and stop changing and trying to erase it/pretend “it” never existed. Your essay moved me to tears.

  2. I have seen the shoes on the side of the Danube River and was very moved. But I believe your post erroneously has the name of the town in VA as Charlotte (which is in NC), rather than Charlottesville.

  3. Thank you so much for this article. As a Jew I am very embarrassed that I had not heard of Nicholas Winton before now. Do I have your permission to post a link to it on another web site?

  4. Thank you for your article today for its history and stark reminder expressed so well.
    My knowledge of Nuremburg was only for the Nazi trials there.Now I know why the tirials were there .

  5. With the incident in Charlottesville, in my home State still fresh in my mind, your article really brought a pain to my heart, tears to my eyes, and an urgency in my gut to be involved in a solution to shut down groups whose agenda is to destroy anyone, who they feel is different than them. Thanks for a moving article and a reminder of what could happen again.

  6. Ms. Estes:

    Thank you for this historical lesson and travel review. The story is of the shoes is really sobering. Eleven million in the course of several years. It’s very sad the the few cause the most angst for the many.

    The city is Charlottesville. It’s a quiet American college town with a very lengthy history. It is very near where Thomas Jefferson worked on the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

    I follow your articles as well as I can keep up. DNA is fascinating, although I have only touched the surface of knowing how to use the tool to search out my brick walls

    Thank you!

    Michael Morrelli Fredericksburg, VA

  7. Roberta, I often wait anxiously for your posts, because they are all so interestng, informative, and helpful. But this post is absolutely your best ever! And so timely and appropriate given the current tragedy unfolding in Charlottesville VA. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for posting it. And thank you for being who you are, and for sharing yourself with us.

  8. Thank you very much for posting such a timely well written article relating what we share as human beings and how history ties us all together. Hopefully, humanity will not repeat the mistakes of the past. I will post a link to your article on my family website. I do hope that your article goes viral!

  9. As much as I have read about the awful years of the wars, this is the first time I read about THE SHOES. It was a great story although sad.

  10. Authoritarianism cares nothing about any religion, nor any culture or ethnicity, nor humanity. It is about power, subjugation and dominance over ALL others – no matter what political “party” is involved. “Right” and “Left” Wings are both part of the same “bird”. Read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and then focus upon the message implied in the last page. It is as much an understanding of human nature and politics as it is prophetic.

    Out of extreme adversity can come hope, resistance, and the will to survive at any cost. Here is one inspiring example of that.

  11. Extremely moving post. Thank you for writing it. Especially relevant after Charlottesville this weekend.

  12. Thank you for writing this. Your column is the first thing I’ve read today that links history and genetics together to approach thinking thoughtfully about Charlottesville and the bigger problem of hatred in our country. I needed your words.

  13. The Mayor of Charlottesville stated yesterday that he viewed this horrific domestic terrorism as an outcome of the brutal and mean spirited harangue we, as a country, have been subjected to in the last two years. This has emboldened these skinheads, Neo Nazis, and KKK proponents to think that they can now come out from their dark hiding places and spew their ugly hatred. All good and decent people must speak up and fight back. To remain silent is to be complicit.

  14. We all and I mean we all comes from the first two human on Earth and that’s Adam and Eve. So yes our DNA will match we needs more love on Earth and stop looking at who doesn’t look like me. We are all the same some lighter and darker than. Others but we are all Brothers and Sister. Thanks for this great information .Much love to all much love.

  15. This week-end I just finished reading: “Irena’s Children – ” from Tilar Mazzeo where she recounts the story of the Polish young lady who, with her friends, saved over 2,500 children mostly from the Warsaw Ghetto. Difficult to read because of the subject matter, but a needed read to learn about those countless selfless people who were willing to give of themselves to counter the works of the devils.

    • As I posted previously,
      Out of extreme adversity can come hope, resistance, and the will to survive at any cost. Here is one inspiring example of that.

      Thank you for your expression of the same concept I tried to convey. You understand this, whereas some others replying here now seek to express and blatantly invoke a political position.

      This blog is not a political forum. Humanitarianism is non-political. If you espouse politics, thinking it is a solution and are invoking partisan political action in a genealogical discussion forum, you are part of the problem.

  16. Humanity will never be smart enough to collectively(and at the same time) embrace the wisdom of your thoughts.

  17. Thank you so much for this passionate, timely piece. I hope it gets wide distribution. Just one correction. The Neo-Nazi/KKK march and counter-protests did not occur in Charlotte (NC) but in Charlottesville (VA).

    • Thank you for your timely essay. Well done! As the person above wrote, mentioning “Charlotte” rather than “Charlottesville” jumped out at me, as I am sure you have realized by now… I enjoy your writing!

  18. Wonderful article/blog today! I wonder if we were in Budapest the same day? It was very Hot on June 3rd when we were there on our last day of a River cruise. Those Shoes were so touching and thought provoking. Numerberg was impressive also!

  19. Nice article but something is missing – I didn’t see the word TRUMP. We need to speak out against Trump or we risk repeating history.

  20. Thank you Roberta! All of us need to make our voices heard during these difficult times. We all need to speak up and act in accordance with our beliefs. Everyone can do something.

  21. Your post “The Shoes” was both eloquent and incredibly moving. May I share it with certain close friends and relatives? (Actually, your relatives too, cousin Roberta, on the Estes and Ray and I don’t remember the other side.)

    Thanks, and peace.


  22. Thank you Roberta. A very thought provoking blog. At this time when the US, UK and wider world face challenges from those with extreme views it is critical we learn the lessons from history. I never thought, given the holocaust and other lessons from history that we would fall for the extreme right wing message again but what is happening today is an indication of how easy it would be to slip into that world again. I will circulate via my Facebook page.

  23. Sometimes I wait to read posts until I have a few extra minutes. I wish I had read this one right away.

    We are beginning to let this happen again. Fortunately, it seems as though a majority of those in the USA find today’s social and political atmosphere unacceptable.

    We need to fix this now.

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