Auschwitz Museum Conserves 'Only Trace Left' of Children Killed

Specialists are preserving 8K shoes of Nazis' youngest victims at Polish death camp
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 16, 2023 10:01 AM CDT
Auschwitz Museum's Awful Task: 8K Children's Shoes
A conservation specialist takes a photo of a shoe that belonged to a child victim of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, at the conservation laboratory on the grounds of the camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on Wednesday. Most of the shoes are single objects. One pair still bound by shoelaces is...   (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

In a modern conservation laboratory on the grounds of the former Auschwitz camp, a man wearing blue rubber gloves uses a scalpel to scrape away rust from the eyelets of small brown shoes worn by children before they were murdered in gas chambers. Colleagues at the other end of a long work table rub away dust and grime, using soft cloths and careful circular motions on the leather of the fragile objects. The shoes are then scanned and photographed in a neighboring room and cataloged in a database. The work is part of a two-year effort launched last month to preserve 8,000 children's shoes at the former concentration and extermination camp where German forces murdered 1.1 million people during World War II, per the AP. Most of the victims were Jews killed in dictator Adolf Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

The site was located during the war in a part of Poland occupied by German forces and annexed to the German Reich. Today, it's a memorial and museum managed by the Polish state, to whom the solemn responsibility has fallen to preserve the evidence of the site, where Poles were also among the victims. The Germans destroyed evidence of their atrocities at Treblinka and other camps, but they failed to do so entirely at the enormous site of Auschwitz as they fled the approaching Soviet forces in chaos toward the war's end. Eight decades later, some evidence is fading away under the pressures of time and mass tourism. Hair sheered from victims, for instance, to make cloth is considered a sacred human remain that can't be photographed and isn't subjected to conservation efforts. It's turning to dust.

But more than 100,000 shoes of victims remain, some 80,000 of them in huge heaps on display in a room where visitors file by daily. Many are warped, their original colors fading, shoelaces disintegrated, yet they endure as testaments of lives brutally cut short. The tiny shoes and slippers are especially heart-rending. "Children's shoes are the most moving object for me because there is no greater tragedy than the tragedy of children," said Miroslaw Maciaszczyk, a conservation specialist from the museum's conservation laboratories. "A shoe is an object closely related to a person, to a child. It is a trace. Sometimes it's the only trace left of the child." Maciaszczyk noted that he and other conservation workers never lose sight of the human tragedy behind the shoes, even as they focus on the technical aspects of their conservation work.

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Sometimes they're overcome by emotion and need breaks. Volunteers working with adult shoes in the past have asked for new assignments. The museum is able to conserve about 100 shoes a week and has processed 400 since the project began last month. The aim is not to restore them to their original state, but to render them as close to how they were found at war's end as possible. In most cases, shoes and other possessions were collected from victims and the material used to help the Third Reich in its war effort. The 110,000 shoes in the museum's collection, while massive, most likely came from only the last transports to the camp, said Elzbieta Cajzer, head of the museum's collections department. The project's $492,000 cost is funded by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, as well as the International March of the Living, a Holocaust education program.

(More Auschwitz stories.)

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