I have a pair of walking shoes I don’t know what to do with. There are too many memories associated with them to wear them again – or to throw them away. I actually think I should bury them but I haven’t done that either. These are the shoes I wore in 2014 on a trip to Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague which means they are the shoes I wore to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Do they carry traces of human life? I don’t know. But in my heart, it is possible, so they seem sacred.
I am thinking of concentration camps and my shoes today because I just finished reading Gerda Weissmann Klein’s Holocaust memoir, All But My Life. It was written in 1957 and updated with an epilogue in 1994. So compelling is her story that in 1995 HBO and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum produced a documentary about her experiences called, One Survivor Remembers. It won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
I know there is an official Holocaust Remembrance Day and this in not it, but the mandate of this book can be expressed in one word: Remember. And so I will, by telling you the places my shoes have been.
In Warsaw: The mindset of the tour guides at Auschwitz and Birkenau is that guests are visiting a cemetery. Thirty-five million visitors have been to these cemeteries since they were opened to the public two years after the liberation. In that 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, 960,000 of them Jews, I thought visiting these camps would be the most wrenching part of the trip. But that wasn’t the case. I was prepared to be horrified at the concentration camp, I was not prepared to be horrified elsewhere.
In Vienna: These things shocked my nervous system:
- The Monument Against War and Fascism was dedicated in 1988. It is Austria’s attempt to remember the years they were under Nazi rule. The monument has four parts, one speaking to the plight of Jews. It features a man on hands and knees as he is forced to scrub anti-Nazi graffiti off a street using a toothbrush. Simon Wiesenthal found this depiction so demeaning that he became a spokesman for a monument exclusively dedicated to the 65,000 Austrian Jew who died in the Holocaust.
- That monument, the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, was unveiled in 2000. It is a “Nameless Library” in which books are on the shelves backwards so that the spines/book titles are not shown. This is to remind us of the cultural loss caused by the genocide of European Jews. Engraved on the steps of the library are the names of all the concentration camps to which Austrian Jews were sent, listed alphabetically in groups of three: Auschwitz, Belzec, Bergen-Belsen; Dachau, Flossburg, Grob-Rosen; and on it goes through 45 names. I never knew there were so many.
- Next we saw our first Stolperstein, which means stumbling block. Each block is a commemorative brass plaque placed in the pavement in front of the last “address of choice” of a Holocaust victim. Each plaque begins with the words, “Here lived” and then gives a name of a previous resident, date of birth, date of transport to a camp, and date of death. This monument, created by Gunter Demnig, is said to be the world’s largest Holocaust memorial. As of 2014, 48,000 blocks had been laid in 18 countries in Europe.
- Seeing all of this might have been bearable if it signified that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past in Vienna. But then we visited the Stadttemple Synagogue. Of 23 synagogues in Vienna before the war, it is the only one to have survived Kristallnacht. We also learned there were 200,000 Jews in Vienna before the war and only 11,000 now. Why? Jews do not feel particularly safe in Austria.
In Prague: It was staggering to visit the Pinkus Synagogue:
- Built in 1535, it is now a memorial to the 77,297 Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia. To memorialize these people, each name is written on the wall with a date of birth, date of transport to the camps, and date of death. Names and more names. Walls and walls with names. 77,297 names.
- On another floor of the Pinkus Synagogue is the artwork of the children who were incarcerated in Terezin between 1942 and 1944. Each piece of art lists the name of the child who created it, the child’s date of birth, and the child’s date of death. Only 10% of the children survived the war.
- All of these names and dates took my breath away and left me literally staggering. It was almost comic relief to leave the Synagogue by way of the old Jewish cemetery, which was founded in the early 15th century. Hopefully the Jews buried there died a “more normal death” but with Jewish history being what it is, who knows?
In Budapest: I missed a wrenching Holocaust memorial due to rain. But even knowing about The Shoes on the Danube Promenade is jarring. It shows 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes on the edge of the river. They are a memorial to the Budapest Jews killed by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party. These victims were ordered to remove their shoes, then they were shot, then their bodies fell into the river. There are women’s shoes. There are men’s shoes. There are children’s shoes.
Coming full circle on the wrenching topic of shoes, let’s add this story from Gerda Weissmann Klein’s book. In 1942, when she and her parents were being forced out of Bielitz, Poland, her father instructed her to wear her ski boots. “But Papa,” she replied, “skiing shoes in June?” Three years later, she was one of two thousand prisoners on a “death march” through Germany to Czechoslovakia in the dead of winter. The march lasted from January until May 1945 and only 120 survived. Gerda Weissmann Klein was one of them. She credits the boots.
It’s interesting that something so insignificant as shoes can be so significant. Thus, as I consider mine, I think I’ll just let them rest in peace in the back of my closet. I walked all over Central Europe seeking out Holocaust memorials, I won’t have to walk far to visit this one.
A note from Lorie: Yes, I know I wear my heart on my sleeve. If you like that about my writing, please look into my new book: Love, Loss, and Moving On.