November 21, 2019
Shoes: a matter of life or death
One of the twelve artefacts received on loan from Auschwitz-Birkenau last month, a small shoe that once belonged to a young child tells a much larger story. Shoes, in many cases, were a matter of life and death for inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
This single shoe, separated from its other half, just one item from 40,000 cubic metres of shoes, has crossed the ocean to distant Australia, to represent the enormity of the genocide perpetrated in the four years that Auschwitz-Birkenau was in operation. In this time, approximately 1.3 million people from all over Europe were murdered at this site, of which 1.1 million were Jewish. This shoe is one of the many personal effects stripped from the deportees who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, carrying no more than a suitcase of possessions. This child’s shoe gives no answers about its former owner’s story. The majority of arrivals at the camp were gassed within hours.
Yet, shoes issued to those inmates who were destined to live, were a matter of life and death. Numerous testimonies from survivors describe what shoes meant to them and how they impacted not only their experiences but their very survival.
Marika Weinberger recalls her arrival in Auschwitz at age 15. They were forced to undress, to take off everything, but they could leave their shoes on. Her sister, who managed to keep her ski boots, was soon deprived of them when a guard pulled them off and gave her instead one man’s shoe and one lady’s high heel. Marika describes in her 1995 Shoah Foundation testimony: “That’s what she had to march in [to work] for the next few months. We thought it was funny; but in the coming months we found out marching in these shoes became a real problem and she suffered greatly for that.”
“There were no orders for that kind of cruelty”, Marika would say. Like Marika’s sister, many were forced to accept replacement shoes that often differed in shape, size and quality.
Zippi Tichauer, who shared her testimony over many years with historian Konrad Kwiet, maintained that shoes were often more important than bread. They were in high demand among inmates and constantly stolen during sleeping hours.
“As a rule, inmates engaged in outside labour had to march to and from their work sites barefoot, carrying their shoes, wooden clogs, or felt slippers in their hand. Only at work were they permitted to wear them. Exposure to the extremes of weather, forced to trudge along muddy, frozen, or stony roads and to work at hazardous sites made the wearing of adequate footwear vital for survival,” Konrad, the Museum’s Resident Historian, explains. Injury to feet and foot infections could result in death.
Konrad also revealed an anecdote about the sharing of a pair of shoes between friends. Erwin Tichauer and his friend, Franz Oliven, shared a pair of leather shoes on a daily basis. The wooden clogs that they wore damaged the skin on their feet. In a dramatic scene Franz offers the leather shoes to Erwin for permanent keep as he would declare himself unfit for further labour. He threw the shoes in his lap, expressing despair about the incredible cruelties perpetrated against the prisoners. This act of friendship and sharing was a life-saving instrument during the hardships suffered by these two friends.
This child’s shoe from the Auschwitz-Birkenau collection is now on display in the Museum’s permanent exhibition, The Holocaust.
Author: Roslyn Sugarman, Head Curator