There is a Museum in Europe where there is no beautiful paintings or precious archaeological finds, but something that doesn’t have an intrinsic worth but just a strong symbolic meaning: a collection of small shoes and poor objects which used to belong to the deported people of the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The entrance to the camp of Auschwitz
Above: picture by Bibi595 via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
With a number of survivors increasingly more scarce to talk about the horror of the lager, the thousands of objects represent the material memory of violence and abuse of the man over the man, the base of the Nazi ideology.
The only gas chamber untouched in Auschwitz I
Above: picture by Pensierarte shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
Shoes, suitcases, prosthesis, small objects for the beauty care, glasses, some garments. This is all it’s left in this Memorial Museum of Auschwitz of the tens of thousands of people who lived, like nameless ghosts, in the shacks of the best organised lager in the Nazi empire. A dramatic testimony of the stock of slaves for the German factories and a death factory to speed up the final solution.
Aerial photo of the camp with the smokes of Birkenau, aka Auschwitz II (1944)
Above: public domain
Something like 40,000 sq m (430,000 sq ft) of shoes is still preserved at the museum and it still happens to this day, after 75 years from the liberation of the camp, that some new discovery renews the sorrow triggered by the sight of that mountain of footwear, shoes that ones had belonged to real people.
Shoes gathered and kept at the Museum of Auschwitz
Above: picture by Pensierarte via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
Right inside a pair of shoes it has been found a note, handwritten, with name and surname of the child who owned them, his registration number in the transport list (BA 541) and the branding of the transport.
Right now we can imagine that child, give him a face with the eyes of our imagination. He was Amos Steinberg, born on the 26th of June 1938 and he used to live in Prague, with father Ludvík and mother Ida.
Amos Steinberg’s shoes
Above: picture by Memorial e Museo di Auschwitz-Birkenau
The documents discovered inside the shoes. Source www.auschwitz.org:
He was only 4 when, on the 10th of August 1942 was interned with his parents on the ghetto of Theresienstadt, created by the black soul of the SS, Reinhard Heydrich.
Map of the inner complex of Theresienstadt
Above: picture by Hans Weingartz via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.0
Theresienstadt became a camp destined only to Jews, spot where people would have been sorted to the various concentration camps. At least the ones who were able to survive starvation and diseases. 35,440 people died in the ghetto and 88,000 were deported mainly to Auschwitz and Treblinka.
A cell in Theresienstadt
Above: picture by Zelfgemaakt via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
But that ghetto was passed off by the Nazis as an example of “independent area of Jewish settlement” to show to the inspection of the Red Cross on the 23rd of June 1944 after a program of embellishment and used as a set for the shooting of a documentary as a propaganda titled “The Führer gives a city to the Jews”. The film director, Jewish, ended up in the gas chamber of Auschwitz with his wife, even though his life had been previously guaranteed.
Maybe it was a strategy to bring fame to the model settlement that in Theresienstadt many important personalities from the Jewish community started to come: people of letters, jurists, diplomats, musicians set themselves up in order to not surrender to the condition of annihilation of that inhuman situation. They created schools, theatrical shows, musicals for the many children in the ghetto: they were 15,000 at the beginning but at the end only 1,800 were still in life.
Maybe Amos Steinberg was one of the children who attended the lessons of the Art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. This woman, before being deported to Auschwitz, where she died, she managed to hide 4,000 drawings of her students, found only after the war.
The drawings of the children in Theresienstadt
by Doris Weiserovà – picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Vladimr Flusser – picture by F. Cellura via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
Young Amos probably did not understand the value of that concert that, with very few means, Maestro Rafael Schächter succeeded to set up for the prisoners and the highest Nazi party officials. Even Adolf Eichmann was there, one of the most terrible people of the Nazism. The “Messa da Requiem” by Giuseppe Verdi started, the opportunity “to sing to the Nazis what we cannot tell them”.
The party officers did not understand the deep meaning of that choice, said professor Giulio Busi:
“When even the last prisoner would have died in the gas chambers, the doomsday – the terrifying Verdi’s Dies irae would have come for the persecutors still in life. Schächter, his musicians and all the Jewish people were aware of the angst content and desire for mundane redemption that Verdi’s song was conveying. A revenge that other men would have taken on, soonish, not in a eschatological dimension but in Europe, Germany, in the Country of the killers already burning in flames and besieged.
Above: picture by Sam via Wikipedia – Licence CC BY-SA 3.0
In September 1944 it was not propaganda-time anymore though, the camp was supposed to be destroyed to not leave proofs of all those burnt corpses that have been placed in the crematorium oven (the ashes were thrown into the river at night by women and children of the ghetto). Yet the prisoners are too many, despite in a month, between the 28th of September and the 28th of October of the 1944 18,402 people were placed to the trains sent to Auschwitz.
The entrance for Auschwitz-Birkenau for the convoys coming from Theresienstadt
Above: picture via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Amongst them, those musicians that had played Verdi’s Requiem, all leaving on the 17th of October and all killed at their arrival in Auschwitz.
Even before, on the 4th of October, little Amos and his mother had got on a convoy and probably sent immediately to the gas chambers. The father on the contrary, had been deported to Auschwitz as well but didn’t end up with his family. He instead arrived to Dachau and managed to survive.
Terezin’s drawings: Tomas Kauders
Above: picture by F. Cellura via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
If you read cautiously , those few words written are almost certainly his mother’s, telling the last chapter of a tragic story, maybe of a desperate hope for salvation or perhaps the desperate willing to leave a trace of her child, so that he was not just a smoke lost in the wind.