From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Shoes and Hair

The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings.

William Hazlitt

I had read all the books. I had seen all the movies. I had been to all the memorial programs. I had lit our Yom HaShoah candle every year with my family. I had walked through the eerie halls of the Holocaust Museum and had cried with my sisters at Yad Vashem. So what aspect of this trip would be different? What would affect me in a way I had never been affected? What experience would bring out emotions I had never felt before?

It wasn’t the brutal pictures. It wasn’t having Polish teenagers spit on us as we stood in the train station. And it wasn’t even having young children greet us on the streets with the “Heil Hitler” salute. It was actually something seemingly simplistic. Shoes . . . and hair. It was seeing over two million pairs of shoes and tons of hair on display in the barracks of Majdanek and Auschwitz. Shoes that had belonged to more than one million people. People just like me—some younger, some older. And hair that had once been beautiful and alive. Long, flowing hair that young girls had brushed and fussed over, just as I do every morning. Yet they were not like my shoes. For they had walked paths I had never walked. And it was not like my hair. For it had been cut not by beauticians, but by barbarians—not to beautify, but rather to humiliate and dehumanize.

When I walked into the first barrack at Majdanek and saw the floors covered with cages of shoes, the sheer numbers overwhelmed me. As I covered my mouth with my hand, I felt myself gasp. Then I walked into the next barrack and there were more shoes—over eight hundred thousand pairs altogether—on display in front of my eyes. Children’s shoes thrown together with adults’ shoes. As I reached out to touch them, some of the dirt came off on my hand. I felt the leather; I smelled the leather and the strong scent that overtook the room.

On the following day, we were in Auschwitz, and I entered another room displaying shoes. I had seen so many shoes at Majdanek that I couldn’t imagine there being any more. But here there were more—many more. This time they were behind glass walls, so I could not touch them. Like the shoes at Majdanek, they were filthy and worn. All of these shoes had been lived in, and each pair told the story of a different life once lived. The graceful sandal of a woman who stayed at home to raise her children. The heavy boots of a working-class man lying on top of the dress shoes that another man wore to his office. The play shoes of a child who ran in the park. In life, these people were all unique. The young were different from the old. Their shoes told their stories—not only of life before the war, but also of the long, hard walk from the train station in the center of town to Majdanek or of the death march from Auschwitz to Birkenau.

As I continued on, in Auschwitz I came to a barrack where on one side of the room was a glass container filled with hair. It all looked the same. We couldn’t see the blond, the red, the curly, the silky. Only the dark, dull, ash-gray of hair discolored by gas. Someone read a poem that touched all of us. It spoke the words of a lone strand of hair. A strand of hair crying out to be recognized as something once alive, once adorning the head of a beautiful eighteen-year-old girl. But the hair in that glass case had no life, it had no shine, no texture, no style. It was dead, just like the victims from whose heads it was savagely cut.

For the next few days, whenever I hugged someone who was crying or just walked with my arm around someone, I would feel the person’s hair. I would put my fingers through it and feel its texture. I would notice its color and its shine. It was such a contrast to the dull dead hair I saw in that glass case.

How ironic, it seemed to me, that these victims’ shoes— inanimate, impersonal possessions—could now tell us more about their lives than their own hair could. Though it was once living, once a part of the people whose heads it adorned, it can no longer tell us anything about the stories of their lives. It tells only the stories of their deaths. It speaks not of the memory of lives once lived, but only of the memory of gas chambers.

Every morning, before I leave for school, I spend an hour straightening my hair and a good twenty minutes looking for the shoes that match my outfit. Is that wrong? Should my experiences in Poland make me ashamed to focus on such things anymore? No, that is not the lesson of The March. I must go on and live my life. But I know that I will never be the same, and that the memories of those cages of shoes and cases of hair will stay with me for the rest of my life. That is the lesson of the March of the Living. That the living should remember the dead and live the lives they never were allowed to live.

Arielle Greenbaum

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