AUSCHWITZ, Poland – I still see the pair of red women’s slippers. They remain fixed inside my mind in Technicolor. Those red slippers, stacked high atop other shoes like rocks and debris at a construction site, contrasted with the hundreds of other shoes underneath — all a leather-and-cloth memorial inside a glass-encased room.
Revisiting the image, I realize that I didn’t see hundreds of shoes; I saw thousands. Each pair lent itself to somebody’s story – stories with similar endings: death. For in Auschwitz today, shoes speak the last words for men and women, boys and girls massacred by the boxcar-loads more than 70 years ago. They died at the hands of madmen.
All my life, I have known of their madness, of their senseless slaughter of Jews, who left behind their shoes as they walked barefoot, unknowingly in most cases, to their extermination.
To know of the holocaust is not the same as seeing its residue. Standing inside this Nazi death camp in Poland, I asked myself why the human carnage had to happen. No answers came to me.
For me, going to Auschwitz could never be about the why, because answering the why presented its own peculiar complexities. My visit was about the “is”: thousands of dead here, their lives reduced to ashes in a crematorium, their past – nameless and faceless as many of them have remained – rendered to a mountain of discolored and ragged shoes, most blackened over time and as ghoulish now as ever.
So many moments in my life have been troubling; so many moments in my life I can’t let go of: Kennedy’s and King’s assassinations in my boyhood, the race riots that turned streets blood red in Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Watts and other urban cities during my adolescence; and Sept. 11, 2001, in my adulthood.
I know where I was. Where were you?
Those who can talk firsthand about bloodletting in Central Europe, who cling to the reminiscences of the men and women, the boys and girls who wore those darkened or red shoes before heading to their deaths, grow fewer and fewer each day.
For me, the madness was two generations ago. For the survivors, the atrocities of war stay fresh in their consciousness, etched there forever but played down in our history books, despite the stark, indisputable images of man’s inhumanity to man.
Such inhumanity sprung to life inside me as I walked the killing fields in mid-July at Auschwitz and its companion death camp: Birkenau, a mile or so down the road. I looked for things that might give me a glimpse of a personal story, some kind of connection with those who died for no reason. I tried to think what the survivors must feel now, how their lives and their memories of the holocaust have been shaped by the losses and by what they saw or experienced during the war years.
Yet for those like me who lost no one in the holocaust or who weren’t around for the killings, we have the death camps to keep alive the horrific tales. The horror of the stories manifests itself in tearful outrage as I stood inside one of the barracks in Auschwitz, a funereal air hanging over the ruins, and stared at the shoes.
They each belonged to people who walked to their deaths because no one cared – because nobody saw those shoes then as anything but a pair of shoes, not the oh-so personal property of humans, whose lives should have mattered then as much as ours matter now.
Those shoes are the world’s shame, and that shame is stamped on my mind now because of the sight of a single pair of red women’s slippers.