The Shoes

FeaturedThe Shoes

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. 

Shoes confiscated from prisoners at Majdanek, Poland Concentration Camp (photo: US Holocaust Memorial Museum). 60,000 Jews were exterminated at Majdanek between October 1, 1941 and July 22, 1944

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?” 

The Day I Was Posted to the White House

The Secretary of Education in the Bill Clinton Administration hired me as his Director of Scheduling and Advance based on one simple fact—I was from Chicago. An honorable and wily statesman, Richard Riley assumed experience in Chicago politics gave me a certain expertise: I’d be able to withstand  the numerous hoodoo scheduling proposals that plagued his staff, particularly those from White House advisor and fellow Chicagoan, Rahm Emmanuel.

The lobbyist for Siemens International contacted me frequently inviting Riley to visit the company’s innovative partnership in Lake Mary, Florida. Siemens provided on-the-job training for students at the Lake Mary high school. The program exemplified Clinton’s school-to-work policy, so I put it on a list of possible events for the Secretary.

In the fall of 1995, Rahm, Assistant to the President for Political Affairs, decided a big flashy event  would be the perfect way to highlight Clinton’s School-to-Work Opportunities Act before the 1996 reelection campaign. He asked Secretary Riley for suggestions. Riley consulted me and we chose Siemens/Lake Mary.

Since I’d be organizing and managing all the details for the President’s visit to Lake Mary, I was immediately posted to the White House Scheduling Office. I tiptoed into my first day on the job as if I’d wake a sleeping giant who’d shout, “You don’t belong here!”

Within the first few hours at my desk in the White House, I received a call from a colleague at the Department of Education. He’d uncovered some unseemly intelligence: Siemens collaborated with the Hitler regime.

Uh-oh.

I immediately reported this to the President’s Scheduler. She hastily called a meeting of decision-makers and sent me with others to an afternoon meeting with Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes and Rahm. These two were known for hurling f-bombs right at your face before you even sat down (“who the fuck are you?”). The fray of Chicago politics conditioned me for profanity, but these brawlers took it to another level. They were famous for not only sparring with each other but also lobbing the most obscene and demeaning sucker punches at ringside innocents.

Rumors were rampant that each of them offered outsiders access to the President in exchange for campaign contributions. My Nazi information put the Lake Mary event in jeopardy and in turn, meant a lost opportunity for big cash from Siemens.

The meeting participants rat-a-tatted around the room on the pros and cons of going or not going. Their only concern: what would the press report? My lips involuntarily clamped shut and quivered. Participation in this conversation would have been like throwing myself in the ring with Muhammad Ali.

I finally busted out, “They had a factory at Auschwitz.”

Heads turned and I felt dragon eyes spit fire in my face. My cheeks ignited.

“Are you saying we shouldn’t go?”

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White House West Wing

I knew my answer would either shorten or prolong my envious seat in a White House office.

“I’m saying Siemens helped fund the Nazi party and later used prisoners to work in their factory inside Auschwitz.”

And so ended my 8-hour post in the West Wing of the White House.