What can you learn from a shoe? As I stood in the Maidanek death camp almost a decade ago, I remember trying to understand, trying to envision, trying to learn about a woman who had died more than seventy years ago. I knew almost nothing about her, other than the fact that she came to Maidanek and probably never left.
“Find a shoe that tells you a story,” the tour guide advised, and so I did.
There are hundreds of thousands of shoes at the Maidanek death camp in Poland, all stored behind wire mesh. The shoes are dusty and mangled, most crushed almost beyond recognition. Our guide quoted the number 800,000, but I don’t really believe it matters exactly how many there are. When the mind is overwhelmed, it focuses on the little things, in the hope that this will assist the heart in coping with an overload of emotion and pain. Our guide had been to Poland more than 60 times, and he understood what we had yet to learn. You cannot focus on 800,000 shoes. The mind simply cannot grasp the number.
I left the group, including my teenage daughter, to fulfill my assignment. I was going to find the shoe that spoke to me and learn its secret. I had made a difficult choice. My 17-year-old daughter asked me to go with her to Poland. She felt it was important for her to go and wanted my support. To go with her meant leaving my two-year-old daughter in Israel. I was torn between the two. I knew my sons would be fine; for that matter, I knew my youngest daughter would be fine too. It was agony leaving her. As the week in Poland progressed, my arms literally ached for lack of holding her. I could feel the emptiness, but I knew my older daughter needed me more.
But in Maidanek, I needed to find that shoe and so I moved away from the others and began walking around the metal enclosures. One shoe…one shoe…
In the end, the shoe that spoke to me was a woman’s shoe, with a slight heel. I could not tell the original color of the shoe, perhaps black, perhaps blue. I could only guess at the size, but even there, I would most likely be wrong.
What can you learn from a shoe? It wasn’t really about the shoe, but the person who wore it, I knew. What was her name, her nationality? Was she from Poland, or did she just die here? Was she killed immediately upon her arrival at Maidanek, or did she pass beyond the initial selection and somehow survive? Had she been married when the Germans brought her here? Was she alone on that day and was it cloudy and raining as it was when I was there or snowy and freezing? Had she already lost most of her family, or did they die beside her? Did she cling to her mother as she was sent to her death, or did she hold a young child in her arms?
What story can one old, dusty, crushed shoe tell me? I fought to create a life, a story for the shoe and found to my frustration that I couldn’t. There was nothing the shoe could tell me. It had no story to tell. It remains a piece of a life, a puzzle that was destroyed, all that is left of a woman who once walked into Maidanek, but most likely never walked out.
Right before taking us into the gas chamber, the guide sought to comfort us. He would take us into hell, to the exact spot where thousands had died, perhaps even the woman who had worn that shoe. The same walls, the same floors would be inside, I thought. I was going to step on the floors where they stood, where they died. We would be enclosed in a small room, but unlike those who had come before us, we would walk out. “Remember,” our guide told us. “We will come out.”
If you have never walked into a gas chamber, you probably can’t imagine wondering if you too would walk out, what right you had to do so. They walked in and didn’t walk out. I was taking my daughter into a gas chamber…later, we did this again in Auschwitz and I wondered if this was where my great-grandmother had died; where my mother-in-law had stood before, miraculously, the Germans opened the door and pulled her out seconds before she would have died.
Maidanek is one of the easiest death camps to understand, because there is little need to imagine. When the Russian troops swept into Maidanek in July, 1944, the Germans didn’t have time to destroy the evidence, as they did in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and elsewhere. Here the gas chambers remain, with the stained residue of Zyklon-B gas on the ceiling and walls. Here the crematoria remain, still filled with the ashes of the last victims. Here the ashes remain.
You want to scream at the Poles to bury the ashes. For God’s sake, bury them. These are human ashes, not some part of a museum exhibit!
And then you want to warn them to not dare to touch those very same ashes. You look at the ashes, understand that this Mountain of Ashes is really a mountain of ashes – not symbolic, but real. How many lives, how many bodies did it take to build that mountain? Your stomach burns, your head spins and you walk away with a truth you have been struggling to ignore – no, we can’t bring it all home to Israel and give it the respect it deserves. There is not enough room in all of Israel for the bones and the ashes of six million.
Others come into the room as you are coming to grips with this horrible reality. You want them to leave but know you will be the one to leave. You will leave these ashes behind and fly home; they will remain forever in hell. This is OUR holy ground, OUR blood. And you know you should be grateful that they have come to give respect but you can’t find it in you, not here, in the hell of Maidanek, Auschwitz and elsewhere, everywhere.
Because it is so intact, Maidanek is possibly one of the hardest camps to visit. It is a place of death, and death lingers in the air, in the ashes, and on the ground on which you walk. You stare at the houses that are but a few hundred meters from the camp perimeter and you wonder what kind of person can make a life so close to such death. Homes and gardens surround the camp. They open their windows in the morning, and see the crematoria. They entertain friends and play music in the shadow of the mountain of ashes. Once, they could have smelled the stench of burning bodies. The smell may be gone, but the air remains poisoned by the hatred.
“What kind of person lives here?” I asked myself again and again, choking on pain and anger. As you walk into the crematoria, you see the table on which the Germans searched the corpses for hidden gold. Even in death, there was no dignity, no respect. You walk into the room with the ovens and, through the tears, the horror becomes more real, because you understand that it isn’t dust piling inside the ovens, but ashes that remain, even 70 years later, to hint of their anguish. Ashes. God, please…
Just as we entered the crematoria building, the skies opened. Thunder and lightning raged across the land that had been sunny just moments before. It was not difficult to imagine that this was the anger and the tears of a God who still cries for His children, and I wonder if some of those tears aren’t for those who still, even today, are murdered simply because they are Jews.
I thought of that shoe again and again while I was in Poland. Each shell of a synagogue we visited, each desecrated, over-grown cemetery, each building that to this day bears the trace of a mezuzah, the Hebrew lettering, the symbols of a religion and people hunted to the edge of extinction.
As I left Poland, my heart soared. We were heading home to Israel – to our families, our loved ones but to Israel itself. We had survived, we had come out. Nothing compared to what those in the Holocaust had survived; nothing even close – but we had the honor most of them never received. In hours, our plane would land in Israel, to sunshine, freedom, the beauty of Jerusalem, the golden light.
Though the Jewish people as a whole rose up from this abyss, Polish Jewry did not survive. In the end, the story of that one shoe is the story of Polish Jewry. Destroyed, bereft, and unable to ever really tell its full story.
May God bless the memory of the six million.