Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Shoe With No Lace - Reflections from Auschwitz

I made sure not to wear mascara the day we visited Poland’s State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was warned. But nothing I had heard from another person, or seen in books and films, could have prepared me for what I was about to experience.
In one of the brick military barracks that once housed over 1,000 human beings, I stood before a glass case of shoes, unable to move. My gut instinct told me to turn and run away. But I couldn’t. Instead, I kept looking at a particular shoe – a small black leather one turned dusty grey with age and wear. 
The shoe had lost its lace. I wasn’t sure if its owner – most probably a boy of about seven or eight years old then – had been responsible for that, or if the lace was ripped out of the sockets after the shoe had been taken from him.
The entire case before me was of children’s shoes. I scanned the display, looking for the shoe’s lost companion. It was as if finding the other would somehow comfort the one remaining. Yes, it was lost more than 65 years ago. But, perhaps, if I could find the partner to a pair (maybe even with lace intact) it would relieve this feeling inside me of having come undone.
My son wears shoes like that to school every day.
I couldn’t find the shoe’s twin. When the Auschwitz concentration camps were liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945, more than 80,000 shoes – both adults’ and children’s – were found, said Agnieshka, our guide. “I say 80,000 shoes, not pairs of shoes,” she emphasized, “because it was impossible to find them in pairs.”
She didn’t have to explain why. The Nazi killing machinery had been so efficient that every single item belonging to its victims, from clothes, shoes, and glasses to prosthetic limbs and gold teeth fillings, had been systematically striped, appropriated and in most cases, redistributed. But towards the end, there must have been many items left behind in the wake of hasty retreat. Many of the exhibits were found in one warehouse (called “Kanada” because Canada symbolized wealth then) that didn’t burn down when the SS evacuated the camps, marching the remaining prisoners west, 10 days before the Soviets arrived.
I walked away from the shoes to an open window for some air. I would like to think of myself as an analytical and thoughtful person. But my mind was unable to process any information at that point, although I was still listening to Agnieshka’s facts and statistics loaded narrative through the headset. As I turned my face out the window, away from the room, my only thought was that I was glad I didn’t wear mascara.  
The sun-soaked brick walls and dirt paths outside seemed eerily distant. I couldn’t feel the warmth and light streaming into the dark room. I didn’t need an explanation for why there was no lace on the shoe. Little boys lose their shoelaces, often without explanation, a lesson I learned on another bright, sunny, early summer day in the far away Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where my kids go to school.
It was 3:30 p.m. and the children were emerging from school dressed in their uniform red tops, navy blue bottoms and black shoes – Mary Janes for the girls and laced leather shoes for the boys. I saw my son coming towards me in the distance, in a strange combination of shuffle, hobble and waddle.
“What’s going on baby? Why are you walking funny?”
“Uh…mom…I lost my laces….”
“Huh? How?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked down at his feet to see a pair of black leather shoes turned dusty grey by the sticks-and-stones playground frolic of eight-year-old boys. The lace on one side was gone; on the other side, half the lace was left, with one ripped end dangling tentatively, barely holding the shoe together.
“What do you mean you don’t know? They’re your shoes and your laces…who else is responsible for them?”
“I don’t know!”
“You must know. Did you step on them? Did you trip and fall? Did they break?”
“I said I don’t know.”
In that moment, I could have told myself to be a cool mom. It was no big deal. Shoelaces could be replaced. Instead, in the split second I had to decide which way to go, I chose the path of the harried, over-scheduled parent trying to juggle graduate school, working an internship, three freelance writing assignments and raising two kids at the same time.
“This is not acceptable. I want to know how you lost the laces.”
“In the playground…maybe.”
“Fine. I will replace them. But you will clean the shoes when we get home.”
He shuffled, hobbled, waddled two feet behind me all the way to the car. It wasn’t too hard to replace the laces. The local CVS pharmacy sold black laces. I didn’t make him clean his shoes nor string the new laces through the sockets. But I gave him a hard time for being unable to explain in detail how he lost the laces.
We’re moving on, Agnieshka said over the headset. I moved away from the window to re-join the group in our tour of darkness. Why did I get all tied up in knots over shoelaces? I had no idea. But I knew that I wouldn’t be giving my son a hard time if he ever lost them again.
Six million Jewish lives were lost in the Holocaust, and an estimated 11 million in total. Here at Auschwitz, 1.1 million were killed, of which about 90 per cent were Jews, 75,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 25,000 people of other ethnicities. The belongings enshrined as exhibits when Auschwitz I, the first of the satellite complex of camps, became a state museum in 1947, were a grim testimony to the horror that was meted out – hair shorn from the heads and bodies of victims before being sent into the gas chambers; suitcases with names and addresses written on them, as if the owners still held on to the barest thread of hope that they were getting on the transports to be resettled in a land where they could start a new life.
I was warned. But nothing I had heard from another person, or seen in books and films could have prepared me for this.
On the bus after the visit ended that day, I sat by myself next to a window. The sun was scorching hot by now. It was 1:45 pm in Auschwitz, and 7:45 am back in the U.S. I called my son.
“Hello, mom.”
“Hi, you sound sleepy.”
“I just woke up…getting ready to go to school.”
“I just wanted to hear your voice and say that I love you.”
It was a two-minute phone call, cut short by IDD rates. But I would have gladly given all my worldly possessions to be able to hold him in my arms there and then. In my heart, I held him a little closer and tighter. In my mind, I couldn’t stop seeing the image of the shoe with no lace.
I made sure not to wear mascara as well the next day, when we visited Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
The camp, built over a sprawling 170-hectare site was said to have held up to 90,000 prisoners at one point. You could almost still smell the dead there, a friend who had come here in her high school years with the March of the Living program, had told me. In the tiny bunks shared by five to seven women, or the communal toilets that were basically long rows of circular holes in the ground, the stench of the dead and living dead had long dissipated. But if one stood very still and silent for a few moments, the air would grow heavy very quickly, despite the bright sunshine all around. And then, maybe, one would be able to smell the deaths that still haunted the grounds.
As I walked, I couldn’t stop thinking about the shoe with no lace. I wondered if its lost owner ever made it here to the living quarters. At the end of the journey, in the building known as the “Sauna” that used to serve as a processing center for new arrivals, I found my answer. Most of the children who came to Auschwitz were sent directly to their death. Of those allowed to live, many were used in cruel medical experiments.  
In a room near the exit of the “Sauna” building stood three walls of photographs, taken from the victims. Many of these were of children – from babies to toddlers, and young, pre-teen kids. I scanned the faces – cherubic, happy, and smiling – and each time I came across a young boy, I found myself wondering if it had been his foot that the shoe without lace fitted on.
I stood at the wall, unable to move. I didn’t care anymore if I was wearing mascara. In the middle of the wall, there was a plague. Reading the writing, I felt as if all that was soft and living inside me was being violently ripped out like the lost shoelace:

The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans,
The world’s best, the bleak earth’s brightest,
These children from the orphanages might have been our comfort.
From these sad, mute, bleak faces our new dawn might have risen.
In those words, I found the lost boy belonging to the shoe with no lace. 
A wall of faces - children, people, families. 
How does one tie up the pieces again after being torn apart by the horror and darkness that the human race had sunk to?
Somehow, the living always finds a way to release death. That evening, I was one of a few non-Jewish persons who joined our Jewish fellow travelers at the synagogue in the town of Oswiecim to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). What followed was an informal session with song, poetry and speech. It was spiritual and ritual, pious and therapeutic.
In the sharing and baring, I found a lace to thread my soul back together again. I wore mascara that night…and was relieved to let it run. 
 This piece was written as part of my trip to Germany and Poland on the inaugural FASPE Journalism Program. It was first published on Open Salon and it is also posted at the FASPE Journalism site


  1. Gripping, moving, beautiful. Thank you for writing this Rebecca.

  2. You write beautifully Rebecca - I almost felt like I was there. Thanks for sharing your thoughts/feelings.