In a modern preservation laboratory on the grounds of the former Auschwitz camp, men in blue rubber gloves use scalpels to remove rust from the eyes of small brown shoes worn by children before they were killed in the gas chambers.
Co-workers on the other side of the long work table remove dust and grime using careful circular motions on soft fabrics and the leather of fragile items. The shoes are then scanned and photographed in a neighboring room and cataloged in a database.
It’s part of a two-year effort launched last month to save the shoes of 8,000 children at former concentration and extermination camps where German forces killed 1.1 million people during World War II. Most of the Jews killed in dictator Adolf Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
The site was located in a part of Poland occupied by German forces during the war and annexed to the German Reich. Today it is a monument and museum managed by the Polish state, which has a serious responsibility to preserve the evidence of the site, where the Poles were also among the victims. The Germans destroyed evidence of their atrocities at Treblinka and other camps, but they failed completely at the massive site of Auschwitz as they fled the Soviet forces in chaos towards the end of the war.
Eight decades later, some of the evidence is fading under the pressure of time and mass tourism. Hair cut from victims to make clothing is considered sacred human remains that cannot be photographed and are not subject to conservation efforts. It is turning into dust.
But more than 100,000 of the victims’ shoes remain, about 80,000 of them on display in a large pile in a room where visitors file in daily. Many are mutilated, their original colors faded, their shoelaces frayed, yet they endure as evidence of lives brutally cut.
The little shoes and slippers are especially cute.
“Children’s shoes are the most moving object for me because there is no greater tragedy than the tragedy of children,” said Miroslav Maciaszczyk, a conservation expert at the museum’s Conservation Laboratory.
“The shoe is the closest thing to a person, to a child. It is a trace, sometimes the only trace of a child.”
Although Maciaszczyk focuses on the technical aspects of his conservation work, he and other conservationists never see the human tragedy behind the shoes. Sometimes they are overcome with emotion and need a break. Volunteers who have worked with adult shoemakers in the past have asked for new assignments.
Albieta Cajar, the head of the collection, said that conservation work always turns up some personal details of people killed in the camp – the suitcases, in particular, can give clues because they carry names and addresses. She hopes the work on the children’s shoes will also reveal some new personal details.
They also open a window into a bygone era when shoes were a prized good passed down from child to child. Some have repaired soles and other signs of repair.
The museum is able to conserve about 100 shoes a week, and has processed 400 since the project began last month. The aim is not to restore them to their original condition but to render them closer to how they were found at the end of the war. Most shoes are single items. A pair tied with shoelaces is a rarity.
Last year, adult shoe conservation workers found an Italian 100-lire note in a woman’s high-heeled shoe with the name Ranzini, a Trieste-based shoe manufacturer, printed on it. The owner was probably Italian, but nothing else is known about him.
They also found Vera Vohrizkova’s name on the child’s shoe. By chance, a museum worker noticed that the suitcase had the family’s name on it and the museum was able to piece together details about the family. Vera was born into a Jewish Czech family on January 11, 1939, and was transported to Auschwitz with her mother and brother in 1943 from the Theresienstadt ghetto. Her father, Max Wohrizek, was sent in a separate transport. They were all destroyed.
Kjer also described the shoes as powerful testimony because the vast piles of shoes that remain give some idea of the magnitude of the crime, even though what remains is only a fraction of it.
Before the SS men sent the men to the gas chambers, they ordered them to undress and told them to go to the shower to be disinfected.
“We are able to imagine how many people came here, hoping that they would be able to take a shower and put those shoes back on. They thought they would take their shoes back and keep using them. But they never returned to their owners,” Kajjar said.
In most cases, shoes and other materials were collected and used to aid the Third Reich in the war effort. The 110,000 shoes in the museum’s collection — while huge — likely came only from the last transport to the camp, Kajer said.
The project costs 450,000 euros ($492,000) and is funded by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, of which Germany has been a major donor, as well as the International March of the Living, a Holocaust education program.
Kajjar and Maciazczyk said it’s impossible to save the shoes forever, but the goal is to preserve them for years to come.
“Our conservation today slows down these processes (of decay), but for how long, it’s hard to say,” Maciazk said.
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