Each small shoe - a memory to be preserved - opinion

Millions of people did not have a shoebox to fill with memories after the War. For many, all that was left was their shoes.

 Eitan Neishlos in Auschwitz (photo credit:  Tali Natapov - Neishlos Foundation)
Eitan Neishlos in Auschwitz
(photo credit: Tali Natapov - Neishlos Foundation)

My grandma left me a shoebox of memories. The contents told the story of how she survived the Holocaust. They told how the Christian family who saved her were taken out and shot by the Nazis. They told how she rebuilt her life in the shadow of the horrors that saw her family perish in the flames. 

She was just a young girl. Millions others were not so lucky. Millions others did not have a shoebox to fill with memories after the War. Indeed, for many, all that was left was their shoes.

Around 1.5 million of the estimated six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust were children. More than 200,000 of these were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They have no voice. They have no marked graves – if they have graves at all. All that is left, is their shoes. A mute witness to the fate of those who wore them. Some of the shoes are even named, with records matching the names of the victims. Today, around 8,000 children’s shoes are kept, some on display, some in archives, at Auschwitz, along with testimony and records telling the harrowing story of those dark years. 

The unfathomable pain, of standing in front of 8,000 lost lives, innocent children, is indescribable. Worse to think however, that this vital testimony of the crimes against our people, may soon disappear if we do not act. Not because of the voices of hatred we still hear which deny or distort the Holocaust. Not because of the ever-growing tide of antisemitism we are witnessing today. Sadly, simply with the passage of time, these shoes – cherished artifacts and historical evidence – are now disintegrating and are on the verge of ruin. Without the restoration of the shoes there is danger to their survival as a historical document of the life and death of children murdered at the camps, and these silent witnesses will be lost forever to history. 

The Neishlos Foundation, along with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation and the International March of the Living, is proud to be launching a worldwide campaign to reconstruct and restore these shoes. Historians and scientists are leading this process, launched just before Rosh Hashanah. As we begin a new year, they will begin the painstaking task of restoring and preserving each stitch, each lace, each memory, each testimony. They will use the latest technology, but their task is as basic and human as could be – to bring light where there was darkness.

Eitan Neishlos in Auschwitz (Credit: Tali Natapov - Neishlos Foundation)Eitan Neishlos in Auschwitz (Credit: Tali Natapov - Neishlos Foundation)

In the face of the vile claims of the Iranian president, or so-called academics around the world, for whom the Holocaust is an inconvenient truth, it is our historical obligation to preserve evidence of what the Nazis did during the Holocaust. Indeed, this is especially important as the few remaining survivors are sadly coming to the end of their lives and there will soon be nobody left to talk first-hand about their experiences during those terrible years, and it’s also crucial towards the ones believing that the Holocaust is a made-up story. 

But it is also our moral obligation to remember every child who was brutally murdered and didn’t have the chance to grow up. It is our duty to ensure that none of the victims become statistics: they were people just like us and restoring these shoes will create a tangible link with their personal stories. 

Indeed, when I see the shoes belonging to the Jewish children murdered at Auschwitz, and I consider the shoebox my grandmother left me, I think of all the shoebox of memories that were never able to be filled. I wonder what they would have written, what lives they might have led, had they not been murdered so brutally and unjustly. 

Yet, the reality is, these shoes are all that is left. We have the ability restore them. It is our duty. So I am proud to call – especially on my generation, the third generation, the grandchildren of the survivors, to consider joining the Neishlos Foundation in this campaign to preserve one of the last living vestiges of Holocaust memory.

Let us remember the children who “walked in the valley of the shadow of death”. And may the children of Israel never be afraid again.