After visiting Auschwitz, many return with a vivid image of the mounds of shoes that are on display. Shoes belonging to men, women and children. Shoes that are tattered and tom, others that are quite formal and elegant, still in relatively good shape. Thousands of shoes. Perhaps millions of shoes. It is an image that is hard to erase from one’s mind.
I’d like to introduce you to two shoes that could have landed up there in that huge heap, but did not. These shoes belonged to mere toddlers. The Nazis and their collaborators were responsible for the murder of 1.5 million Jewish children. Only 6 out of 100 children living in prewar Europe survived. In fact, Mr. Gaby Benedict, a survivor who was born in Hungary and returned to live there for a decade or so after the war, noted (hat for many years following the Holocaust there were no bar mitzvahs in Hungary. There were no children left; all had been killed during those dreadful years.
Hinda Cohen was born in Poland, on January 18,1942 to Dov and Zipora Cohen. The family was interned in the Kovno ghetto. On March 27,1944, as her parents slaved for the Germans, two-year-old Hinda was deported to Auschwitz, to her death. Upon returning from labor that day, Dov Cohen searched frantically for his daughter. He soon realized that she had been taken, never to be seen again. He found one of her unlaced shoes. He etched the date of her deportation onto the sole of the shoe and vowed to preserve it forever.
This little shoe was bequeathed to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The Amud Aish Memorial Museum has a photo of this shoe as part of its current unique and moving exhibit, “Children and the Holocaust.”
Hinda Cohen lived for two short years. Tragically, she was taken away and killed. Yet her memory lives on through the existence of this little shoe.
There is another shoe. The wearer of this shoe was spared that dire fate. Hans Dovid Ettlinger’s shoe tells a different story, a story of freedom and escape. In 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power, the Ettlinger family fled from Frankfurt, Germany to Den Haag, the Netherlands. After four long years, they were finally successful in obtaining the treasured, lifesaving visas. With the precious visas in hand, the family left for the United States in 1938. At the time, Hans was 18 months old and the shoe he wore is now on display in Amud Aish. Mr. Ettlinger, now living in Monsey, NY, has graciously donated various items to Amud Aish, items that accompanied the family as they journeyed from Amsterdam to their new home: a suitcase, duvets, tablecloths, an apothecary bottle, a comb and brush, and a mirror. Several of these items were gracefully embroidered with his mother’s maiden name, evidence of the cultured, elegant home and household they had left behind in Frankfurt. Grateful as they were to be alive and healthy, setting up a new home was still an arduous task. These momentos of their earlier life in Europe, helped ease the transition.
The Ettlingers were among the very fortunate ones. They were eventually able to procure visas and leave Europe far behind. They packed up a lift with many of their household possessions, including the items mentioned above. Additionally, the family brought with them a Sefer Torah that had originally belonged to a shul located in a small suburb of Frankfurt. The members of this community were all hoping to emigrate. The elder Mr. Ettlinger presented this community with substantial funds in payment for this Sefer Torah. These funds enabled the community members to support themselves until they too would hopefully be able to emigrate.
The lift was sent directly to Kan¬sas City where the extended family remained until the early 1990s when they moved to Monsey, NY in order to pursue appropriate chinuch opportunities for their children. Once the lift arrived and was unpacked, it was given new life, used as a sukkah for close to a decade!
The Ettlinger family’s saga is a reassuring one. Holding tightly to their precious heritage, with a holy Torah scroll literally secured in their arms, they began their new life and built beautiful families here in America. The Ettlinger family, with G-d’s help, succeeded in forging ahead, whilst simultaneously embracing the values of the past.
As I visit Amud Aish and see these artifacts displayed, it occurs to me that perhaps, dear readers, you also have similar items in your home, momentos of a previous life, hopefully a happy, peaceful life. My own dear mother, a”h, passed away several years ago. As I cleaned out her closets and dressers, I found intriguing items that I had never set eyes on before. My beloved mother certainly had her share of “treasures.” I regret that my dear mother and I had not taken the opportunity to examine these items together, whilst she was healthy and well and able to do so. I found a huge stack of handkerchiefs, folded and packed away in a silk satchel. Some of these hankies had names of cities written on them. I’m imagining that Mother may have traveled occasionally, and when doing so, would pick up a hankie from that particular town, hotel, resort… Mother also had a large collection of elegant gloves, some to the wrist, others reaching up to the elbow. When did she wear these elegant items? I would have loved to sit with her and hear details of her earlier life. These items very possibly would have prompted her memory, enabling her to revisit her early adult years.
Dear readers, please don’t wait till it’s too late. We can revisit earlier days and explore youthful adventures with our loved ones. With personal items to jog their memories, we may succeed in providing them with richer days, enabling them to revisit the past, whilst enjoying the present and eagerly anticipating the future.
Miriam Liebermann, MSW, is the coauthor of “Saying Goodbye” with Dr. Neal Goldberg, and author of “The Best is Yet to Be” and “To Fill the Sky with Stars.”
The Amud Aish Memorial Museum/ Kleinman Holocaust Education Center is located in Brooklyn NY. To donate artifacts or to learn more, visit amudaish.org or call 718-759-6200.