It's one of the world's saddest sights – a jumble of shoes scattered along the Danube riverfront in Hungary's capital Budapest. They come in all shapes and sizes, from workers' boots to smart businessmen's shoes, from dainty court high heels to a pair of children's tiny lace-ups, today filled with a tangle of bright yellow buttercups.
These 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes are the powerful memorial to one of the most despicable events of Word War II, when members of the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross Party ordered a group of their Jewish countrymen to take off their shoes before shooting them dead, leaving their bodies to crumple into the river.
But while it's heart-rending to ponder the fate of the more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews in Budapest who perished in the Holocaust – more than half of the Jewish population of the city – via the many remarkable memorials that dot the city, it can still be an incredibly inspiring experience.
No one who sees those shoes will ever forget the horror of what happened, but they'll also never doubt Hungarians' determination to bare their hearts and souls to the world, in the hope of it never happening again.
For there are also so many stories of individual heroism during such a dark time in history that are celebrated in one of Europe's most stunning cities, and which can make a visit an incredibly enriching experience.
There's the beautiful memorial to Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice-consul who saved an estimated 60,000 Hungarian Jews, by issuing them with documents to allow them to emigrate and hiding others in protected houses for which he claimed diplomatic immunity. His selfless actions are remembered with a bronze sculpture showing an angel reaching down to help someone lying helpless on the ground, with the inscription, "Whoever saves a life is considered to have saved an entire world".
Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was another hero who's immortalised in a bronze statue, this time enclosed between two rock walls. He saved about 20,000 Jews by issuing Swedish passports, and sheltering them in safe houses. He once stopped a train on its way to Auschwitz to hand out passports, under Nazi fire, through the windows.
"People were supposed to have some kind of connection to Sweden, however tenuous," says Budapest toursbylocals guide Petra Csanyi of the man who's now an honorary Australian citizen and who has become the subject of several international movies. "But anything would do. One man said his uncle had visited Sweden and brought him a teddy bear home. That was enough!"
In the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park is another absolutely awe-inspiring memorial. This is the Emanuel Tree, a weeping willow sculpture with the names of 30,000 Holocaust victims inscribed on the metal leaves. It was commissioned by Hollywood film star Tony Curtis whose father, Emanuel Schwarz, was a Hungarian Jew.
But among all the memorials, statues and parks in the names of those who perished, or those who tried to save them, there are other amazing Jewish sights in Budapest. There are the three major synagogues, for instance, including the second-largest synagogue in the world outside New York, the magnificent yellow-and-red-striped Grand Synagogue built in 1859, with both Romantic and Moorish architecture and, unusually, an organ. Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt himself played at its opening ceremony.
But despite its grandeur, locals still don't mind poking fun at themselves. On the synagogue steps are souvenir sellers, peddling T-shirts. One has a basketball player emblazoned on the front with a variation on the Nike slogan, Just Jew It, with the name Michael Jewdan instead of Jordan. Another favourite is a picture of Moses, holding a stone inscribed with the 10 commandments, with a caption that he was the first to download wisdom on his tablet.
After all, the old Jewish quarter of the town, once so deserted, is now one of the hippest bohemian areas of the city, full of smart cafes, restaurants, boutiques, street art and bars.
Yet poignancy is never far away from the smiles. Next door to the synagogue is the Hungarian Jewish Museum with a huge array of precious objects, both ceremonial and day-to-day.
Among them is a home-made menorah, or traditional lampstand, made by a poor resident out of bent spoons and napkin holders. Another is fashioned from breadcrumbs, by a destitute family keener to honour their religion than assuage their own hunger.
Sue Williams travelled as a guest of APT
APT touring and cruising, phone 1300 336 932. See aptouring.com.au
A tour of Budapest's Jewish sights is offered by toursbylocals guide Petra Csanyi. See toursbylocals.com
Hotel Nemzeti, Jozsef Krt 4, 1088 Budapest, Hungary; phone +36 1 477 4500. See hotel-nemzeti-budapest.hu/en/