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On Tuesday the US Capitol became the site of a macabre scene — 7,000 empty pairs of shoes laid on the lawn to commemorate the children in this country killed by gun violence. But the sight, spurred by calls for gun law reform in the wake of the mass shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is not a first. People have long used empty shoes as symbols of death, and Greeks reportedly still view empty, overturned shoes as bad omens.
In Canada, empty shoes have been used to remember the victims of drunk drivers. Globally, they’ve memorialized those killed during the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, and the Invasion of Nanjing, according to the book Acts of Undressing: Politics, Eroticism, and Discarded Clothing. And empty shoes have been linked to genocide.
In 2005, a memorial called “The Shoes on the Danube Promenade” was installed in Budapest by the Danube River near the Hungarian Parliament building. It marks the tragic events of the 1944-45 winter, when the virulently anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party militiamen killed 60 Hungarian Jewish men, women, and children near the river. (They killed thousands of Jews elsewhere in Budapest as well.) Before killing them, the militiamen demanded their victims remove their shoes, as footwear was quite valuable during World War II.
“The killers could use them or trade them on the black market,” according to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. “Sometimes, though, the victims’ shoes were so worn out and useless, that the militiamen killed the Jews with their shoes still on. And sometimes, the Arrow Cross pulled the shoestrings out of children’s shoes, and used them to tie the helpless Jewish victims’ hands together before they were shot.”
Tying them together made it easy to push the bodies into the freezing Danube River. It’s telling that the militiamen used children’s shoestrings during this massacre, as empty shoes are particularly linked to the deaths of children.
In graveyard culture, empty shoes symbolize the death of a child. Sometimes the shoes are placed on chairs or one is overturned. On children’s gravestones, shoes typically join symbols like the “lamb, daisy, naked child, sleeping child, cherub, angel carrying a baby to heaven,” according to the International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association. They represent a life unfulfilled, just as bronzed baby shoes commemorate a child’s first steps and the life to come.
So, the 7,000 shoes left at the Capitol Tuesday were more than a political act, but part of a long and grim tradition.