Piles of shoes. That’s what made me cry. Not the photographs of the ghettos, not the video footage of people being shoved into railway cars, not even the diagram of people being led to the gas chambers. Shoes. Thousands and thousands of shoes, all which graced the feet of those who were deemed society’s enemy.
I’ve learned about the Holocaust through history courses here at Chapman for the last two years. It’s a subject I’ve never shied away from. Unlike some of my colleagues, I can stomach engaging with texts, photos and articles about death, brutality and destruction. I’ve told myself that it’s a part of life and society that we all have to learn about. It’s been a subject I have always had an innate interest in.
But there was always one aspect lacking in my Holocaust education; I had never actually seen any parts of the Holocaust, or its remnants, in person.
This past weekend, I got the chance to travel to Washington, D.C., with some of my colleagues to attend the Associated Collegiate Press conference. This conference is always a wonderful opportunity for us to get feedback on our paper, ask professionals every question under the sun and most importantly, for us to bond as a staff. Our critique was helpful, we got to meet journalists from The Washington Post and newspapers alike – we were met with lesson after lesson.
But perhaps the place where we learned the most valuable lessons this past weekend wasn’t the conference halls or the meeting rooms, but in the one national museum we were able to squeeze into our tight schedule: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
As I stood in front of all those shoes, their blue-grey tint radiating off the glass enclosure, I was in a sort of disbelief. I first read about the number of shoes at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in a high school history class. 4,000 pairs. That number was followed with a few others: 15,000 pounds of hair discovered, 40,000 Nazi camps and facilities, six million Jewish people killed. I stared at these leather and canvas slipper-shaped shoes and took in just a mere fraction of the Holocaust’s remains.
There were a few other instances at the museum where the sheer size of the Holocaust and its destruction hit me in the chest: the engraved names on the glass windows – representing Jewish names and heritage – almost wiped away from the Earth. The map detailing the location and size of each concentration camp and ghetto. The Nazis’ “racial science” chart. But what struck me the most while navigating the four floors of history was, oddly, a rather simplistic idea: there is so much about the Holocaust that has been boiled down to statistics. It is presented in our society as a series of numbers that are somehow supposed to convey decades worth of persecution and suffering.
I have a theory as to why the Holocaust has been integrated into our society and conversations in this way: statistics are easier to digest. Six million. That could be six million dollars, six million stars, six million grains of sand. 15,000. Could that be 15,000 pounds? 15,000 college graduates? 15,000 miles? When presented this way, the grandness is almost easy to ignore. Six million grains of sand is nothing, 15,000 college graduates is the size of an average university. The power and the impact is almost lost, until you find yourself standing in front of a pile of shoes.
I wish we had been able to spend more time at the museum so that we could have soaked in the information for hours. We left with an indescribable heaviness in our hearts and an awakened appreciation for what we have. While waiting for an Uber to come rescue us from the cold wind chill, we sat in an almost pensive silence. How do you take in all that destruction? I really don’t think there is a correct way to do so.
If you ever find yourself in Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles, or one of the many cities that have Holocaust museums and memorials, do yourself a favor and go. No, it’s not the most “fun” way to spend an afternoon, but it will challenge you in a way that I believe is impossible to experience anywhere else. And if you get the chance to take a Holocaust history class, or even find yourself in a conversation about this gross abuse of humanity that scars our history, remember one thing: it wasn’t six million grains of sand, it was six million lives.