Trying to explain all of this to future generations is not an easy task. The survivors are dying off, and while their stories are being recorded, that also is not sufficient. Ways are needed to explain the terrible moral lapses that occurred in language younger people can understand.
Shoes and Names
I was curious about whether I was right that it is objects more than words that help bring these terrible historic events home to young visitors. One approach I have seen used at museums involves having the visitors come to an area filled with shoes. Each pair of shoes represents one dead person. Seeing a pile of shoes, you get a better appreciation of the magnitude of it all. When visiting the Holocaust Museum on April 26, I made a point of watching the reactions of teenagers and children to the exhibits. Along one hallway, etched in glass, are the names of some of those killed in the Holocaust. As I stopped to try to take this all in and digest it, two teenager girls walked by.
â€śWhat are all those names?â€ť one asked.
â€śAre these all victims? Oh my god!â€ť
Well said, girls.
Sure enough, there was a huge pile of at least 1,000 shoes and it got the attention of a girl walking by with her mother. The girl asked, â€śHow did they get all of those shoes?â€ť I did not hear her motherâ€™s response but whatever her explanation about what the shoes represented, the girlâ€™s response said it all: â€śEw!â€ť
A poem is printed above the pile of shoes, a poem by Yiddish poet Moses Schulstein:
"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 fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the Hellfire"
I always looked forward to writing about Holocaust survivors who would go out of their way to tell their stories as often as possible to people, in hopes their stories will not be forgotten. Looking back, I am embarrassed at my attempts to understand and connect with them. I remember asking one if he had read Maus, Art Spiegelmanâ€™s award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust. I was reaching for a cultural vantage point to connect. That seems shallow to me now. With a sense of purpose, I would share their stories via my articles, although it was always difficult to convey all the pain and frustration they suffered in the 15 or less paragraphs I was allotted in the newspaper. Coincidentally, it was again shoes that helped explain one part of the World War II story: The American soldiers memories of it.