Walking in the shoes of Holocaust victims


Local educator participates in Holocaust program in Poland

A group walks into the entrance of Birkenau in July 2013; the train tracks led right to the death camp. /PHOTOS | MARSHA  GIBBERPROVIDENCE – Although I stare at my computer screen in the comforts of my home, I see myself walking between glass display cases filled with thousands and thousands of shoes. Three wooden barracks that formerly housed innocent victims, mostly Jewish people, still house 185,000 shoes – men’s tie shoes, shoes for little, even tiny feet, flat shoes, high-heeled shoes.  They are piled atop one another, vying for recognition, dusty and stiff with age, worn out, starting to fall apart – all empty shoes. In early July, I was walking in Majdanek, a German concentration and extermination camp outside of Lublin, Poland.  I was looking at the shoes, but I was also searching for footprints.

I was in Poland from June 30 - July 7 as part of a fellowship from the Zechor Yemos Olam Holocaust Educator Training Fellowship Program under the auspices of Torah Umesorah and funded by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. In addition, my husband, Rabbi Eliezer Gibber, and I received a generous stipend from the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island to participate together in this program.  This trip was the culmination of a six-month, interactive, online course designed to train Jewish educators to teach Holocaust studies that includes both a Torah perspective and a breadth of historical knowledge.

I have taught a Holocaust studies class every other year since 2002 at the New England Academy of Torah to young women who are high school juniors and seniors.

My father, of blessed memory, was a survivor; his parents, siblings and family were not.

I feel that it is important for us to remember and never forget and to see that our children know and remember as well.

About 30 educators from all over the United States were on this trip. The question uppermost in our minds was, “Why are we here?”

The few days were intense, disturbing, indescribable.  We visited three extermination camps, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec.  The vestiges of indescribable atrocities and horrors assaulted our senses.  In Majdanek, there is a memorial of Jewish ashes, a mound of earth where fragments of human bones are clearly visible.  In Tarnow, we walked in the darkness of night down a lonely road with dogs barking on either side of us to a simple fenced rectangle in the woods. This enclosure is a mass grave holding the bodies of 800 young children whose last footsteps were likely on that very same road.

At the same time, we also visited Lublin, the site of the famous Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who instituted the daily study of the Talmud, the daf yomi.  We prayed at the gravesites of Torah luminaries dating to the 16th century and in famous synagogues that have been restore. Only a few synagogues survived the Nazi horrors, particularly in Krakow, a city that Hitler spared.  Many of the participants had close relatives who survived and close relatives  who did not survive the death camps.  But even for those who had no immediate family, it was a deeply moving and powerful experience.

Nevertheless, we asked, “Why are we here?”  We were all students of the Holocaust; we knew the statistics, we knew the stories.  What dimension was added by standing on the once blood-soaked earth.

Majdanek is one of the few labor-extermination camps that remained intact because the Russians liberated the camp on July 23, 1944, before the Germans could destroy the evidence of their systematic atrocities. They found 450,000 shoes when they arrived. Majdanek housed warehouses where clothing and valuables  taken from victims of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, camps established under Aktion Reinhard (Operation Reinhard, the Nazis’ code name for their plan to exterminate Polish Jewry), were sorted and stored and ultimately sent to Germany as part of the Nazis’ systematic plunder.

A gas chamber remains intact, complete with a peephole in the heavy wooden door through which the final moments of the unsuspecting victims could be relished.  The crematoria ovens stand looming in a row. The human ashes were used to fertilize flowers and cabbages grown outside the building..  Germans used a pool of water heated by the crematoria for bathing.  A short walk away, a grassy knoll rises and dips – it is the site of a mass grave where 18,000 Jewish people were killed in one day in the “Erntefest” (Harvest Festival) on Nov. 3, 1943.   The Germans blared music to drown out the cries, but the locals from the Lublin area were able to watch the massacre with ease.   The empty wooden barracks stand soulless.

We completed our tour of Majdanek, but we did not leave yet.  One participant shared Torah thoughts and accounts from some individuals who had been transported to the camps.  The program director recited the Kaddish as well as the prayer in memory of the departed.. In this way, we sought to connect to the footprints of those souls who walked through Majdanek as well as their shoes.

Why are we here? We are here to intertwine our peaceful lives with the horrors that shattered their lives.  We perpetuate their memories and the footprints of our forebears who walked through the dark abyss with courage and faith until their bitter end.   We walk in their very footprints.  We stand in prayer in the very places where they stood in prayer and beseeched the Almighty for an end to human pain and suffering. We are here to preserve their footprints forever in the continuum of the chain of Jewish tradition and history of Jewish suffering.  We are here to remember, and never to forget.

Marsha Gibber (MGibber@PHDSchool.org) is a Judaic studies teacher at the Providence Hebrew Day School.