Opinion | A single child’s shoe: story not statistic

Dr. Marilyn Harran
Stern Chair in Holocaust Education
Director, Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education

As Louisa Marshall wrote so eloquently in her opinion piece, “The Holocaust is more than a statistic,” behind every number is a face, a name, an identity. For those of you who have yet to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and would like to engage with this history here at Chapman, I invite you to visit the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library on the fourth floor of the Leatherby Libraries.

Marshall wrote on the impact of seeing the many shoes worn by people who entered the concentration and death camps and never left. We take a different approach with the same goal. In our permanent exhibit, we have a single child’s shoe, worn by a child who walked into the Majdanek concentration and death camp in Poland and almost certainly never walked out. The sole of the shoe still has mud on it from those last steps. As with the shoes on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it testifies not to a statistic but to an individual, one whose life was ended after it had barely begun.

The history of the Holocaust is this story millions of times over. It is a story of antisemitism, racism, bigotry and hatred. It seems to be a story that has yet to end.

In our reading room, we have a worn yellow trunk that tells a very different story. We were fortunate to be able to “rescue” it when relatives of the survivor to whom it belonged were on their way to dispose of it after her death. When we opened it, we found it was full to the brim with paper bags of documents. It was a bit overwhelming and, at first, we didn’t know the treasure we had. The woman – Leila – to whom the trunk had belonged to had used paper bags as her filing system and in those bags was the story of her life.

Unlike the child who was deported to Majdanek, Leila had the good fortune to be part of a children’s transport – a Kindertransport – organized by a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton. That transport brought her out of Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in Scotland. Only in the final years of his life would Winton be recognized for his daring and courageous actions. His story of sheer human compassion and decency would and should be celebrated around the world.

Also in the trunk were photos of Leila and her family, as well as welcoming letters from girls attending a boarding school in rural Scotland sent to Leila before she began her journey in fall 1939. Other letters tell a much sadder story of her parents’ repeatedly frustrated attempts to emigrate. They died in Auschwitz.

Each artifact in our Samueli Library tells its own story; each bridges time and distance to remind us that the Holocaust is about individuals. As the Holocaust becomes more distant and there are fewer and fewer survivors to make history real and personal by sharing their experiences, the artifacts they have given us take on new meaning as messengers of memory. But for that to happen, we have to take the time to really look at them and learn their stories. They point not only to the past but to the present, as we face our own challenges of antisemitism, racism and bigotry. A child’s shoe from Majdanek is a powerful reminder that the swastika is never a joke.

The Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Interactive iPads provide the chance to engage with many stories in the permanent exhibit and our staff is always glad to give tours. The many events in our annual lecture series are always open at no charge.