In a modern conservation laboratory on the grounds of the former Auschwitz camp, a man wearing blue rubber gloves uses a scalpel to remove rust from the eyelets of the small brown shoes the children wore before they were gassed to death. cameras
Colleagues at the other end of a long work table wipe dust and grime with soft cloths and careful circular motions on the leather of the fragile objects. Then, the shoes are scanned and photographed in a neighboring room and cataloged in a database.
The work is part of a two-year effort launched last month to preserve 8,000 children’s shoes in the former concentration and extermination camp where German forces murdered 1.1 million people during World War II. Most of the victims were Jews killed in dictator Adolf Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
The site was located during the war in a part of Poland occupied by German forces and annexed to the German Reich. Today it is a monument and museum administered by the Polish state, to which has fallen the solemn responsibility of preserving the evidence of the site, where Poles were also among the victims. The Germans destroyed evidence of their atrocities at Treblinka and other camps, but not completely at the massive Auschwitz site as they fled approaching Soviet forces in chaos towards the end of the war.
Eight decades later, some evidence is fading under the pressure of time and mass tourism. Hair cut from victims to make cloth is considered a sacred human remains that cannot be photographed and is not subject to conservation efforts. It’s turning to dust.
But more than 100,000 shoes of the victims remain, some 80,000 of them in huge piles exposed in a room where visitors file daily. Many are deformed, their original colors fade, shoelaces disintegrate, but they endure as testimonials to lives brutally cut short.
The tiny shoes and slippers are especially heartbreaking.
“Children’s shoes are the most moving object for me because there is no greater tragedy than children’s tragedy,” said Mirosław Maciaszczyk, conservation specialist at the museum’s conservation laboratories.
“A shoe is an object closely related to a person, to a child. It is a trace, sometimes it is the only trace that remains of the child”.
Maciaszczyk said he and the other conservation workers never lose sight of the human tragedy behind the shoes, even as they focus on the technical aspects of their conservation work. Sometimes they are overcome with emotion and need breaks. Volunteers who worked with adult shoes in the past have applied for new assignments.
Elżbieta Cajzer, head of the Collections, said that conservation work always reveals some individual details of those killed in the camp; suitcases, in particular, can offer clues because they have names and addresses on them. She hopes the work on children’s shoes will also reveal some new personal details.
They also open a window into a bygone era when shoes were a valuable commodity that was passed down from child to child. Some have traces of patched soles and other repairs.
The museum can keep about 100 shoes a week and has processed 400 since the project began last month. The goal is not to restore them to their original state, but to make them as close as possible to how they were found at the end of the war. Most of the shoes are individual objects. A pair still laced up is a rarity.
Last year, workers conserving adult shoes found an Italian 100 lira note in a women’s high-heeled shoe that also had the name Ranzini, which was a shoe manufacturer in Trieste, imprinted on it. The owner was probably Italian, but nothing else is known about her.
They also found the name of Věra Vohryzková in a child’s shoe By coincidence, a museum worker noticed the family’s name on a suitcase, and the museum was able to piece together details about the family. Vera was born on January 11, 1939 into a Czech Jewish family and was sent to Auschwitz by transport from the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1943 with her mother and brother. Her father, Max Vohryzek, was sent in a separate transport. They all perished.
Cajzer described the shoes as a powerful testimony also because the huge piles of shoes that remain give an idea of the enormous scale of the crimes, even though what remains is only a fraction of what it was.
Before the SS men sent people to the gas chambers, they ordered them to undress and told them they were going to the showers to disinfect themselves.
“We can imagine how many people came here, hoping to be able to put those shoes back on after a shower. They thought they would get their shoes back and keep wearing them. But they never returned to their owners,” Cajzer said.
In most cases, the shoes and other possessions were collected and the material used to aid the Third Reich in its war effort. The 110,000 shoes in the museum’s collection, while huge, probably came from the last transports to the camp, Cajzer said.
The project cost 450,000 euros ($492,000) is funded by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, to which Germany has been a key donor, as well as the International March of the Living, a Holocaust education program.
Both Cajzer and Maciaszczyk said it’s impossible to keep shoes forever, but the goal is to keep them for years to come.
“Our current conservation slows down these (decay) processes, but it’s hard to say for how long,” Maciaszczyk said.
(with information from AP)
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