The Tale of a Shoe: Remembering the Holocaust

  • 6 January 2016
  • Abby

Almost seven years ago United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke these words:

"We must continue to teach our children the lessons of history's darkest chapters. That will help them do a better job than their elders in building a world of peaceful coexistence."

These words were spoken as resolution 60/7 was ratified and the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Program began. The point of such a program is to help ensure genocides like the Holocaust do not rise unchallenged in the future. And part of that is taking the time to examine pieces of the past and what they can tell us about victims who have otherwise vanished without a trace.

Paul Salmons works for the Institute of Education at the University of London. In his hands is a small bronze colored shoe - something a toddler might wear. "The first thing we ask young people to consider is "What is the object?", and that's a very easy question. Everyone can see it's a shoe, but the follow-up question is harder: "Who is the person behind this shoe?"

Mr. Salmons goes on to explain the insights students are expected to gain by studying the shoe. "It's fairly straight forward to see this is a child's shoe... and let's say it's a boy shoe. The child couldn't be more than five - probably three years old." Further students can tell a lot from the shoe in terms of age and usage - it's obviously old due to both general style and how faded the color is. It's also crumpled with rusted eyelets.

Turning the shoe over reveals that it's cobbled together using pins and tacks as well as nails - and the sole is made of several pieces. This is (or was) a handmade shoe. But it's seen a lot of wear, because there is a lot of damage at the back which has been repaired. More so it's a home repair job by a mother or father with more love than skill.

And that is perhaps all the insight we'll ever have into this particular child. In the end we don't know the child's name or age - only where the shoe was found. And sadly this shoe was found at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. The little boy could have come from anywhere- Poland, France, Germany - any part of German occupied Europe. Most likely he was a Hungarian child - 1/3 of those Jews killed in Auschwitz were Hungarian, but this is all speculative.

Either way when this child would have been among 2000-3000 individuals spilling out of unbolted box cars after 3-4 days of travel. And as the group was divided into two he would have been with the women and young children. The older boys and the adult men would have been in a separate group. These groups would have been divided into five lines that walked toward an SS doctor.

This Nazi doctor would have looked quickly at each person and sent them either to the left or the right. Some of these people were being chosen for hard, manual labor - but the greater number (80-90%) would have not been chosen for work. And while we don't know his first experience, we do know he would have walked with that greater number. Perhaps in the little shoe Salmons holds in the palm of his hand, the nameless child walked another kilometer from the train line until reaching a large building.

Camp guards would have ushered his group downstairs to an underground bunker or dressing room. They would have been told to undress and prepare for a shower. And they would have been told to take off their shoes and tie the laces together so as to avoid mix-ups. That after the shower it would be easier to find their shoes.

And this little boy along with his family and the members of their community would have been shoved naked into a room that looked like a showering room. But after the doors were locked and barred behind them, they would have discovered the shower heads overhead sprayed poisonous gas instead of water. And twenty minutes later the room would have been ventilated and the little boy along with everyone else would be dead.

The child's body would have been dragged outside and burned in a crematorium, and like that he's gone without a trace. At the very least there is this shoe to show there was a little boy who lived perhaps 3-4 years. A child who was murdered in Auschwitz one of over 1.5 million Jewish children killed. Over the course of the Holocaust over 6 million Jews were targeted and killed. The Roma and the Sinti were also targeted and an estimated quarter of a million to half a million were killed.

In their memory - and the millions of other victims of the Holocaust - the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Program, Outreach Division, United Nations Department of Public Information was established. For more information please visit: www.un.org/holocaustremembrance