The shoe room is just how it sounds, a huge room filled with shoes—confiscated shoes from prisoners of the Majdanek concentration camp. The moment I step into the room, what I had managed to keep at arm’s length, encompasses me. Suffocates me. Everything in the museum, up until that moment, had been visual. Photographs and artifacts. Images I could blink away and walk past. The shoe room, however, smells—it smells musty. The air closes around me as I step across the threshold. It’s as though the shoes hoard all the air in the room, holding it close, containing it in their soles. Reminding me of my need for air and my helplessness without it. Cautioning me of the transience of the here-and-now. Giving me a brief moment to experience the suffocation of those who stood in these shoes. I see small shoes, worn by a child. (I can hardly bear to think of what became of those tiny feet.) Some shoes are woven. Others show crumbling leather and cracked heels. These shoes carried people onto railcars, through iron gates proclaiming “Arbeit Macht Frei,” then into chambers that held death.
Until now, I could look away from the pictures, ignore the sounds and videos, walk away (in my own obedient shoes) from the exhibits that prompted a churning in the pit of my stomach. But I cannot ignore the smell, nor the absence of air, in this room.
On one of the displays, an inscription placed over the Torah in a German synagogue says, “Know before whom you stand.” In the shoe room I stand at the feet of those sacrificed to hatred and ignorance. And I am compelled, as a teacher and as a human being, to respond. To speak. To remind my students of the importance of understanding history so as not to repeat it. To address the injustices—little though they may seem in comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust—that I encounter daily. As those once inhabiting these shoes remind me, my silence will come all too quickly in the on-rush of time. They also remind me that my job as a teacher is to equip my students to speak, to battle against prejudice and hatred.
Thank you for a beautiful post, Anna, and thank you for not allowing all those shoes to be forgotten. Well done.ReplyDelete
As always, Danni, thank you for your kind words.Delete
When I walk through military exhibits of old planes or machinery, the smell of grease and metal affects me the way you describe the shoes. I think these things that have been touched by humanity must hold onto a bit of those souls in order to tell their stories. Thanks Anna, this was a beautiful post.ReplyDelete
It has always amazed me (and fascinated me) how smells can be so powerful and even prompt such a connection to things. So nice to see you here, Kristi. Hope you are well!ReplyDelete
I wrote my senior seminar paper for my history major on the Holocaust Museum. The shoe room has always been my favorite part of the museum, if one can say that they have a "favorite" part of the Holocaust Museum. And yet, I believe one can. You've articulated better than I've ever been able to manage why that room holds such a deep pathos for me. It's the blending of transience and permanence. For, though the matter that makes up those shoes is decomposing and will, as with all things, turn to dust, the matter that makes up those shoes has found a permanent resting place.ReplyDelete
In my thesis, I wrote about the shoe room and how, for me at least, the most powerful and difficult thing to reconcile is that the matter of the victims is still present. Those shoes still hold the skin cells of the people who wore them. And what's more, they hold the skin cells of the people who removed or confiscated them, who abused and who saved them. Those shoes hold the cells of all types involved, even if it's just a tiny sampling of people. And so, though the bodies of their owners may never be found, their cells, their matter has found a resting place in the museum, surrounded by friends and companions, and paid homage to by all who visit that hallowed space. That togetherness, though its purchase price was great, is eternal. And so the smells of decaying leather and linen, mingled with sweat, they are the smells, also, of lives lived.
Beautifully said, Kate.Delete
I visited the Holocaust Museum as a young teen. I'd read a great deal about the Holocaust and much of what I saw there was familiar. Perhaps that's why the shoe room stands out in my mind, but it's the only exhibit that I have a specific recollection of. My other memories there are only shadows and impressions. I remember standing there looking at those shoes as the others in my group moved on. Your post captured the (temporarily forgotten) feelings I had there perfectly.ReplyDelete
It's comforting to know that others are remembering, reminding, and learning from the atrocities that happened. Thanks.
Thank you, Tabitha. It is comforting to me, as well, that there are others who had that same kind of moment and response to the shoe room. May be always remember, or be willing to be reminded, of these important lessons.Delete