For Children

Sabina Cherner

Iron Souls

5th & 6th Grade Prose Honorable Mention

The sun glints off the iron soles. She kneels, staring into the rocks and pebbles piled up inside the shoes. The girl tries to imagine what their wearers thought when they were held at gunpoint.

Moments earlier, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants had been strolling down the Chain Bridge gazing at the peaceful capital of Hungary. Accustomed to the bustling loud city known as the Big Apple, the girl welcomes the serenity of Budapest and is eager to sight-see. Even from afar, Budapest’s litter-free streets can be seen, peeking out from between elaborate white roofs of official buildings. Juniper trees decorate the boulevards like sprinkles on an ice cream cone a tourist licks on a hot July day. It’s almost impossible to imagine such a majestic city having a dark history.

Almost.

After all, Budapest was consumed by World War II. These beautiful, wide streets and squares boasting monuments of the city’s founders, where so many foreigners pose for photographs with loved ones, were once stormed by merciless Nazis. This city was once nothing but a heap of ruins and ashes; rage, hate, and prejudice pouring down at the capital of Hungary, soaking it like a paper bag is destroyed in a storm. And in the hands of these ruthless enemies were defenseless Jews, rounded up like animals, their fate not decided but definitely sentenced to end soon.

The girl crouches on the promenade, looking at the worn and tattered iron shoes that mark the last place that these Jews touched land before being shot down into the Danube. The brown heels are nearly flat, and the tips so bent that they create creases. Some shoes go past the edge of the pavement and hang over the river, almost willing to step onto air and plunge into the unforgiving water.

She has read countless books about World War II and the atrocities are ingrained in the girl’s understanding of herself and her family. But still, looking at this physical embodiment of all the pain makes it more real. The girl begins to understand that these murdered people had lives. These Jews had their own memories and stories all lost and forgotten in the exact place of these shoes.

Adorned in ribbons, flowers, and other trinkets, the shoes look loved. But on closer inspection, the ribbons are dirty from hundreds of hands having been run over them in remembrance. The flowers are wilted, the last traces of their sweet scents escaping with the gentle breeze. The trinkets are dusty and most are buried beneath the collections of pebbles tourists have stacked inside the shoes, a failed attempt to fill their emptiness. But the cycle keeps moving; more visitors will come, leave a piece of themselves behind, and move on with their lives. Humanity is unpredictable and ever changing, just like the tides of the Danube. People come into this world, create a life from their experiences and then die.

The girl stares at the row of shoes: some neatly placed parallel to each other, others lying on their sides, cast aside by their owners. Something about the shoes make them so personal; they are a constant reminder of all the footsteps and journeys their wearers have taken before their lives abruptly ended.

Staring into the iron soles her vision is blurred by held back tears. She tries to imagine what it must have been like to stand on the edge of a river, knowing that your life was to end soon by the bullet already angled at your back...

You don’t know what you have done wrong, only that it doesn’t matter. You will die within a minute and all that will be left is a thin trail of blood in the river. People around you try to put on brave faces, to convince themselves they will die nobley. But to no avail: their faces sag, shoulders hunch, and then their bodies jerk once, twice, before their corpses fall into the water and are quickly swept away. Should you run, or hold your breath and dive in? It doesn’t matter, you hear the ‘POW’ of the rifle before you sense the pain…

The girl shivers despite the heat. She looks at a pair of shoes, a pair of toddler’s shoes. She fingers a frayed pink string tied around the small left boot. The laces are loose, and the toe part upturned showing that the shoe was too big for its wearer. Not far from there is a pair of women’s low heeled pumps. They have turned red from age and a yellow cluster of geraniums peeks out from the rim.

Squinting hard, the girl can make all the shoes melt into one strip of brown along the edge of a Hungarian promenade. She can make it become a bumpy surface, each edge and point a hurdle the Jews had to overcome in their lives. But in the end, this path will only end in death for them.

Crouching on the edge of a street in Europe, the girl understands that the beauty and pain life will bring lasts forever. It cannot and will not be washed away by currents. Instead, it will linger in people’s memories, in their faces, smiles, and tears.

And as I kneel there, the sun beating down on the back of my neck, the light breeze blowing my curls into my face, I understand just how far we have come to create a world where people can express and celebrate their beliefs and differences.

Today, I am a proud Jewish girl studying for my upcoming bat mitzvah, following the very same beliefs people years ago were persecuted for. I want to believe that our world is getting better. I hope we are headed toward a brighter future where everyone is accepted and
accepting. Someday, I will be able to say that the world is moving forward in one direction, just like the Danube.