Sunday, December 4

Arie Pinsker, the guardian of the Auschwitz children’s shoes

He was 14 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz. The German army had invaded Hungary in March 1944, and in mid-May the Hungarian Jews and those from recently annexed Romania were deported. He remembers how he was forced to give up his summer clothes and shoes, the only possessions he kept. But Arie Pinsker always considered himself lucky to have arrived at the concentration camp at a working age. Younger children, torn from their mothers’ arms and useless for Nazi purposes, ended up in the gas chambers after also being stripped naked and barefoot. He was transferred to Dachau and survived the “death march”, before being liberated by the allied forces in 1945. Of all those other children, only one testimony remains today, “the last physical evidence of their existence”, a mountain of pairs of shoes that belonged to some 8,000 children and that those who visit Auschwitz can contemplate as palpable proof of the atrocity. At least until now. The shoes, made of leather, have deteriorated during these almost 80 years. Many are prey to mold and the field museum was considering their removal, but Arie wants to prevent it. That is why he has promoted an initiative for them to be conveniently restored and preserved. The restoration will take place in the field’s own workshops, today used as a memorial. As he leans against the glass of the gallery where the museum displays the shoes, stacked one on top of the other, he cannot hold back his tears: “perhaps my two sisters’ shoes are there.” Arie knew about the mistreatment of the Jews from school in Oradea, but his father did not allow them to stop going to school until the war broke out. In 1942, two escapees from the Warsaw Ghetto were taken in by his family and learned from them what was happening. “My father understood why his cousins ​​didn’t respond to his letters, but he still had a hard time believing everything they said,” he recalls. When the deportation order came, the parents told their nine children that they were traveling to “another home, where there would also be many Jews,” but Arie was old enough to suspect something was seriously wrong. The trip, standing up, in the train car, lasted five days. “Hold on to my coat,” his father told him as he entered Birkenau, amid the chaos of 4,000 deportees and with his hands full with little brothers. But he got lost in the crowd and, upon reaching the selection point, he only saw his two older brothers in one of the groups. He ran towards them and the soldiers offered no resistance. Of the eleven members of the family, only the three oldest boys survived. For decades she refused to return to Auschwitz, but since her retirement she has made more than 70 trips with young people to whom she tells her story. “The only thing I remember from the liberation is that when I woke up, I was warm, covered with blankets. A guy in a uniform told me in Yiddish that they would do everything for me to come home and I imagined seeing my parents again, my eight brothers, uncles and cousins… it took me a long time to come to terms with what had happened. And when I went back to Auschwitz and saw those shoes, I thought that was the closest I would ever get to my little brothers.”

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