More than anything I remember the shoes.

June 29th, 2014, 5pm

It was 30°C with few clouds. The breeze was gentle.

More than anything I remember the shoes.

I was 7 years old and we were on a family road trip on the East Coast, seeing all of the historical sites, monuments, and memorials in DC, New York, and Philadelphia. At the time, I didn’t really care about seeing places like the Twin Towers or the Liberty Bell. I just wanted to eat ice cream from the trucks parked outside the White House and pretend that my new stuffed monkey (who I’d given the very unfortunate name of Mr. Mister) was the president.

One day, we took a break from the National Mall and went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I remember the exhibit being dimly-lit and extremely quiet, people tiptoeing their way around the plaques and display cases. There were maps and photographs and propaganda posters and information that my 7-year old brain couldn’t possibly understand. All I understood was that Hitler was evil and killed millions of Jews in Europe.

Inside the permanent exhibition, there was a section cornered off against a wall. Inside were shoes, shoes that were all the same aged, dark blue color, haphazardly lumped together. I couldn’t fathom the idea of 6 million victims, but I couldn’t deny that mountain of empty shoes.

More than a decade has passed since my first visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Since then, I’ve survived IB History in high school and taken a class on the History of the Holocaust in college. I’ve visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, stood in the disorienting depths of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and walked along the Shoes on the Danube Bank.

This time when I walked through the permanent exhibition, I understood the timeline and plaques (my college professor was coincidentally also one of the museum’s scholarly advisers). I recognized the names of Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich, knew the difference between concentration and extermination camps, could dissect the historical shift of antisemitism from religious to cultural to scientific. I understood the history, but it still felt like a school subject to be learned. That is, until I came to the shoes.

They may have relocated them, but they were the same as I remembered — a dark and faded blue, no two neighboring shoes part of a single pair. This time, I read the poem on the wall above the shoes:

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.

We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers.

From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam.

And because we are only made of stuff and leather

And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.

I lingered there, looking at that pile of shoes, then down at my own feet.

Sanna and Christine said thanks.

Share this moment

Nicole Zhu

Youth in Asia (and other places).

Create a free account

Have an account? Sign in.

Sign up with Facebook