“We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers
From Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh, each of us avoided the hellfire.”
Yiddish Poet Moses Schulstein (1913 – 1981)
There is a room in Washington D.C. in which this is written, set in stone upon the wall. These words preside over a multitude of shoes, a multitude of memories, of those who tread this Earth in those shoes, and who met their deaths in those shoes. As Schulstein writes, they were the last witnesses to the attempted destruction of a race who merely lived in peace among their fellow human being.
Objects played a large part in the Holocaust. The yellow stars bearing the word “Jude” marked those of Jewish descent out from their fellow man, belittling them and condemning them to persecution. Children as young as 3, forced to vacate their homes in order to escape to Germany on the Kindertransport, had to pack a suitcase, choosing from various personal belongings a handful of treasured items to bring with them. Jews across Germany and Poland, including my own family, gave their possessions – sacred cups, books, candlesticks – to their non-Jewish neighbors, in the hope that one day they would return from the hell they were destined for and retrieve them. They smuggled religious items, books, photographs and so much more, in their shoes, in their skirts, in their own bodies. These items all held sentimental value, symbolised their religious belief, and, in some cases, served as motivation to survive.
The Holocaust was an attempted destruction not just of human beings, but of a culture and a nation that has lived, and will live, for thousands of years. And an episode of the British daytime show Antiques Roadshow, shown on January 16, attempted to show the important role these objects play in our remembrance of the Holocaust. Because, in a sense, these objects were the last witnesses: the last witnesses to a life that has been lost in so many ways, a society that is no longer. To the 6 million we know of and more who lost their lives in the hell that took Eastern Europe during the years 1933 – 1945.
And so we must remember, and teach those who come after us of the destruction, the hope held, and of the importance of the words “never again”.