And so I persevered. And trusted the silence that envelops and transcends words. Knowing all the while that any one of the fields of ashes in Birkenau carries more weight than all the testimonies about Birkenau.
Wiesel, Elie. Night (Night Trilogy), Preface
Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media
Images of shoe piles in concentration camps have become, in some contexts, a symbol of Holocaust remembrance. Alongside burning candles, calls to “never forget,” and the rattling sounds of cattle cars, shoes have a stronghold in Holocaust memorializing. As representations of the unnamed dead, empty shoes have had multivalent and historically situated meanings; In the present day, the Washington D.C. and Auschwitz Holocaust memorial sites reenact the concentration camp shoe piles in order to evoke an unintelligible sense of loss.
In the camps, the shoe piles had multiple meanings as well. For Nazis, the shoe piles acted as a visual representation of the success of their final solution. Every pile and overstocked warehouse represented a death toll; each pair of shoes represented a captured or murdered body. Left on display the in camps, shoe piles disempowered and threatened those imprisoned within. People in the camp saw overwhelming, ever-growing piles of shoes that emphasized their mortality. Tall enough for large swaths of prisoners to see, the overbearing piles of shoes spread the threatening message through the camp. Jews, Romani, disabled people, homosexuals and others were made aware of their inferiority and inhumanity in the eyes of the Nazi regime.
Aufräumungskommando Spiritual, Emotional, and Economic Labor
As representations of the dead, Holocaust shoe piles have threatened and emboldened those who encounter them. Marshall McLuhan describes clothing as “an extension of our skin [which] helps to store and channel energy” (McLuhan 119). Piles of shoes confiscated from the captured and the dead carried, and still carry with them, the essence of a body that is no longer there. Ambiguous souls occupy the shoes that were collected, sorted and displayed by camp prisoners. The above image, “Aufräumungskommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau Sort Through Shoes Confiscated from Hungarian Jews” demonstrates the emotional, spiritual and energetic work that Nazis subjected camp prisoners to (Note: this image was taken from the “Auschwitz Album” which included within it, among other things, images of the Aufräumungskommando of Auschwitz, a group of primarily Jewish order commandos).
The fresh shoe pile is taller than the Aufräumungskommando sorting through it and too long to fit entirely into the image. As it towers over them, the shoe pile contains within it the heavy story of Hungarian Jews who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. But also, the Aufräumungskommando had to touch each pair and sort them into piles based on their monetary value. The bodies that would be gassed, burned, and overworked to support the Third Reich would continue to possess economic value for the regime. When prisoners’ bodies were gone, their shoes would be traded and sold in complex sales networks. Eventually, the shoes would be removed so far away from the camps that the aura of the person who wore them would disappear. As the Aufräumungskommando worked, they were forced to separate the essence from the shoe, the object from the person. And as the Nazi’s intended, the bodies would be forgotten.
Piles. Images from the Holocaust consist of piles: piles of glasses, piles of suitcases, piles of hairbrushes, of teeth with gold fillings, of jewelry, of bodies, of ashes…of shoes. All of the piles reflect the absence of bodies. While each of these collections holds deep meaning, piles of shoes have a weighty aura of the people who wore them. The breadth of genocidal rage and the rise of Nazi power can be sensed in those piles. But the meaning has also been flipped by descendants who have transformed them from architectures of power to metaphorical gravesites. Regardless of their application, the piles of shoes from concentration camps contain a sense of the dead and spread the affective horror of the Holocaust.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The MIT Press, 1994.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang, 1972.
The above shoe pile images were all taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website:
- Pabianice Warehouse, Pile of Shoes at Dachau
- Pile of Shoes Stored in Auschwitz Warehouse
- Still Photo from Soviet Film, American Soldiers at Flossenbuerg
- Aufräumungskommando Sorting through Confiscated Shoes
- Bergen-Belsen Survivors Cook Near a Pile of Shoes
- Bergen-Belsen Survivors Walk Past a Pile of Shoes
- Women Bergen-Belsen Survivors Waiting for Food
- Prisoners’ Shoes at Jasenovac