A Shoe Collection Like No Other Now On Display At The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

  • 2 January 2016
  • Abby

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what about reality? For the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), 4,000 shoes collected from Holocaust survivors are a little more surreal than most people walking through its doors expect. Of all the items that serve as sobering reminders of the horrifying acts of senseless killing and torture that occurred during the Holocaust, the shoes hold a special place among those who see them.

These shoes, on loan from the State Museum of Majdanek in Lublin, Poland, may be only a small portion of those discovered at Majdanek when Soviet troops liberated the camp in 1944, but they leave a strong and lasting impression on those who see them. You see, the shoes tell a story, and in such a deep and profound way that the bustling that typifies most museums is conspicuously absent here.

In their perverted agenda, Nazis confiscated the personal belongings of their victims before marching them into gas chambers to kill them en masse. The plan was to have the shoes fixed by some of their prisoners at the camps and then have them taken back to Germany for reuse.

The Quantity

The first thing to hit you when you see the shoe collection is their sheer quantity. There are a couple of truckloads of them at least, and yet, there are more where these came from - a lot more. Nothing prepares you for this, especially when you remember what they represent: people who lost their lives in the most inhuman way in extermination camps.

The Nauseating Smell

Then there is the smell. The rubbery smell of a shoe means nothing until it represents a lost life. At this permanent exhibition by the USHMM, the smell is almost overpowering, least of all because there are thousands of shoes piled together. Of all things I can forget about this sordid display, smell is not one of them.

The Shattered Dreams

The longer you stick around, the more you wonder about the wearers of these shoes. What were they like? What were they thinking when they wore them? What did they aspire to? These were all questions that lingered in my mind, even long after I left the museum.

Some of the shoes in the collection are quite fancy, and their fashionableness is apparent regardless of the many years that have passed since they were last worn. These are people who took to heart the false promises the Nazis used to lure them to their inescapable death traps at the extermination camps, all under the guise that they were being relocated to places where they could rebuild their lives afresh.

Additionally, these were people who harbored lofty dreams people like you and I entertain, but were instead rewarded with devastating and soul-crushing disappointment of having to suffer an undignified death at the whims of WWII Nazism. Fancy two-inch heels, loafers, and the like – all lie there as haunting reminders of the ruined dreams of their massacred owners.

The Heart-Break Of Lost Innocence

Unfortunately, the heart-breaking reality of these shoes knows no bounds. A closer look at the grim collection will give unmissable hints at the ages of the victims. Some of the shoes are just baby booties – which are compelling reminders of the kids who had to uncomprehendingly walk into the gas chambers, probably still holding their mothers' arms, and then pay the price of Nazi fanaticism with their innocent lives.

Prepare To Be Moved

Believe it or not, 74 of those standing by to answer questions from visitors are Holocaust survivors. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like for them to remain in the presence of such vivid reminders of their greatest traumas of their lives if complete strangers like myself can hardly bear them with still nerves. Nobody walks into the museum, sees the shoe collection, and walks out unchanged. I know I didn't, and I don't need to be psychic to know that many other visitors had the exact same experience.