No one told us about the shoes.
Truth be told, we didn’t know much about the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. My colleagues and I at the Department of Education were too busy. Busy with our new jobs. Busy in the heady Washington scene. After all, we were political appointees of newly-elected President Bill Clinton.
The Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, revealed in a private moment that he thought his Deputy Secretary, Madeline Kunin, should have had his job. As a feminist, an immigrant, and a Jew she successfully ran for governor of rough-hewed Vermont three times. Like many survivors of the Holocaust, Kunin’s political courage developed in her core at an early age. She voluntarily lobbied for better education, health care and reproductive rights as a young stay-at-home mother.
Like a hen with her clutch, she rounded up the staff at Education and arranged for a special tour for us of the Holocaust Museum before its grand opening in 1993. At first I thought she’d lead the group of Assistant Secretary level who’s-who’s. After all, Madeleine Kunin’s name is among those carved into the granite exterior of the Museum. But no, Deputy Secretary Kunin accompanied us staffers on the bus.
As a group, we were from all parts of the country. Some knew people from education circles. Some knew each other from the Clinton campaign. Our clucking enthusiasm escalated as we gathered in the Hall of Witness.The Museum staff beamed. We, their initial visitors, crowed about our staggering first-look. The architecture appeared contradictory: industrial and elegant, light and shadow, wide and narrow. Initially the exhibits were background to our huddled getting-to-know-you conversations rather than observations of incomprehensible evil. We skimmed family narratives, peered into replicas of boxcars and camp barracks, listened to eyewitness recordings.
At some point the way narrows, and Museum visitors have no choice but to crowd into a shadowy passageway. It’s meant to replicate the cramped trains and camps. Then all at once our eyes adjusted to a large dark room illuminated by several downlights drawing attention to the floor. Shoes. A field of shoes. Men’s leather wingtips, women’s pumps, children’s oxfords are all piled up in an erratic display of magnificent personal remembrances. My stomach cramped. And then I saw them. Baby shoes. Tiny Mary Jane’s like I used to wear.
It wasn’t imagination that told me what happened to that child. The proof was all around me: the photos, the documentation, the accounts of survivors. The shoes told the story. The Jews wore their best apparel in the forced-leaving, believing they were being transported to a better place to live, not a place of torture, starvation and extermination.
I hung onto the railing and wept.
Sixteen years later two of my grandchildren, ages ten and twelve, and I traveled to Barack Obama’s Inauguration from our hometown Chicago. At a visit to the Holocaust Museum they followed the life of a brother and sister in a special children’s exhibit. When we got to the shoes, they whispered.
“Are those hers?”
“Are those his?”