Years ago, I was at an art gallery in a city I don’t even remember. Maybe Cincinnati, maybe Harrisburg, I don’t know. Part of the gallery had been given over to an exhibit on the Holocaust. A long, wide hallway had photos and large shadowbox exhibits from that time.
There were slatted wood benches down the center, spaced every ten feet or so. The photos were quite large, 4 x 10 feet or so. They were taken in black and white. Stark, dark subjects. The hallway was in low light, with spotlights on each exhibit.
People walked slowly, with the occasional whisper about what they were viewing. The photos were sad, shocking, occasionally graphic, and nearly unimaginable. But having seen documentaries on the Holocaust before, they weren’t new to me. But you never become immune to the horror, do you? So, I felt all the feelings as if it were the first time.
My companion and I weren’t talking and just walking slowly and taking it all in. I don’t remember all the items in the shadow boxes. It seems there were pieces of clothing, perhaps an overcoat. There were swatches of torn fabric with the star of David stitched on them. I remember fragments of plates, metal drinking cups, and the like.
We were about two-thirds of the way through the exhibit, we came to a shadow box on the left side. There was a bench in front of that one. The display was easily five feet wide, twelve feet tall, and about a foot deep, recessed into the wall.
The box was filled nearly to the top with shoes. Just a jumble of shoes. Brown, black, worn, and dirty. Adult shoes, laces akimbo if not missing altogether. Throughout the pile of the hundreds of shoes were little shoes. Children’s shoes. Some so small they were no doubt toddlers and baby shoes.
I backed up against the bench and sat down. Dozens of photos and other memorabilia were hard to look at, certainly. But this abundance of shoes, this mismatched collection of footwear, brought me to tears. I was sobbing. I had never seen any art exhibit anywhere that reduced me to tears. I’ve seen Monet, Renoir, Picasso, and dozens of other artists’ works in person. I’ve been moved by their skill and the nuances of the craft. But I’ve never cried a single tear.
But shoes. Shoes long separated from their owners. Shoes never destined to walk another mile. Shoes still existing long after their owners’ lives were snuffed out.
And who thought it was worthwhile to save these shoes? Was there a bin somewhere they were all pitched into? Were they saved for someone else to wear? I had questions but no answers.
I sat on the bench for a long while. As far as I was aware, no one around me seemed to have the emotional response I was experiencing. I had no tissues, only the sleeve of my jacket. My companion had walked on, leaving me to my private agony. It wasn’t something to share. And it was hours after we had left the museum before I could speak of it.
I don’t remember where I saw this—some nameless museum, in a random city. I had never been so moved by art before, and not since either. People that deny the Holocaust need only to see the shoes. Shoes that carried thousands to their death. Shoes, silent objects speaking volumes.
M. Lynne Squires is a Pushcart Prize-nominated Appalachian author. Her books include the award-winning Letters to My Son – Reflections of Urban Appalachia at Mid-Century. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including the anthology Voices on Unity – Coming Together, Falling Apart, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers – Wiley Cash Volume X, Stoneslide Corrective journal, Mountain Ink journal, and The Charleston Anvil journal. She is the host of the WV Library Commission television show WV Author. Follow her blog or contact her through http://www.mlynne.com