Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media

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.

-Ari Weinberg


Works Cited

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:

3 thoughts on “Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media

  1. In thinking about the shoe piles of the Holocaust as a media of remembrance after World War II (and of intimidation during the war), you raise some evocative issues about embodiment and media and affect and media, as other commenters have pointed out. Since a number of critics we have read this semester (McLuhan, Baudrillard, etc.) write about conspicuous consumption and the rhetorics of display for new consumer goods, your analysis of the semiotics of used goods as inscribed by their former users is a particularly appropriate choice for this course. You might want to look at more of the scholarly literature about and critiques in memoirs of (such as Ruth Klüger’s Still Alive) Holocaust exhibitions.

  2. Ari, thank you for this thoughtful and emotionally evocative post. Before I can share with you the rich thoughts it inspired, I want to commend the simple beauty of your prose and the affective rippling it engendered; thank you for sharing it with us.

    I mention the profoundly affective echoes of your language because they complement the affective milieu within which I find your argument positioned. As materialist objects, both in the sense that they are the consequences of modes of production and that they are material, worn by bodies and made worn by bodies, shoes inevitably bear traces of the affective. The sensation that is felt when slipping one’s foot into a shoe, whether the pinching of toes caused by a shoe not yet “broken in” or the pleasure of putting on shoes whose comfort signifies an accretion of memories, is an affective one. It is tied to the body and can be linguistically represented in only the most fleeting ways.

    The emphasis on the ephemeral that is usually taken as constitutive of affect is brought to a halt by the powerful images and commentary you provide. In your post, we can see how affect can simultaneously cohere and disrupt the static; the photos of the shoes, themselves still images, evoke sensations in the body that confuse temporality and one’s sense of subjectivity. It is against this backdrop that I wonder how your post may help us to think further about the multiplicity of the affective, particularly in ways that do not demand the intertwining of affect and movement. What is there about the affective that is powerful because of stasis? How can we theorize affect through the static, through the dehumanizing repetition these photos horrifyingly document?

  3. Ari, I found this to be an interesting and compelling blog on the multi-layered meanings of shoe piles found at the Nazi concentration camps. Reading your selection evoked a lot of pathos for me. The number of images of shoe piles, (each varied with a slightly different framework–American soldiers viewing piles, women cooking next to piles, freed prisoners walking by piles, etc.), along with the repetition of the word “piles” in the conclusion had an echoing effect that emphasized the overwhelming loss of life, and the calculated control of this loss. I read with horror, but not surprise, of the size of these piles being used to intimidate the prisoners. For future research, it could be helpful for increased understanding to uncover the sales networks to discover who sold and who bought the shoes. How did the sellers attempt to rationalize what they were doing? Did they know where the inventory of shoes came from? How many pairs of hands did the shoes go through until they found a wearer? How prevalent was this underground market? How much did the supply exceed the demand or vice versa?

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