A real shoe crisis: Reflections on senior visit to Poland

Shirel Benji, 12th grade

“Mom! I’m having a major shoe crisis!” I yelled, as I shoved mounds of clothes into my suitcase. My mother walked into my room and frowned — it was one hour till takeoff from LA to Poland, and my suitcase was overflowing, unable to zip. “Yes? she asked, clearly unamused. “Okay so basically, I want to take my Allstars AND my Adidas, because one is black and one is white, and I like them both, but they don’t both fit, and I don’t know what to do!!”

“You call that a shoe crisis?” she responded.

Shoes at Majdanek                         BP Photo by Michelle Hirschhorn
Forty-eight hours later, I stood in the concentration camp of Majdanek, staring back at a case of thousands of faded, brown shoes – the actual shoes that the Nazis ripped away from the Jews in the Holocaust, 70 years ago. Before arriving at the first camp, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel or react. Would the emotions hit me? Would I even feel anything at all?  The events just felt so distant to me. But the second our tour bus pulled up at the site, my heart dropped. The camp was beautiful, and very green. It was almost eerie how similar I had imagined it to look based on the movies I had watched, and the books I had read. It was almost like the words of our school textbooks were coming to life around us, making up the notorious scene.

But at almost every sight I observed, I couldn’t stop myself from comparing them to specific aspects of my own life. Seeing the shoes of all those people who were robbed of everything including their lives made me feel extremely guilty. I had truly been distraught over how many shoes I would be able to bring on my two-week trip, and these people had been robbed of their one and only pair, and for a stay away from home that would be much longer than mine.

I swallowed hard when I saw the small, wooden beds that the Jews were forced to sleep on for months at a time — partly because I had been saying that I missed my bed! repeatedly since the second I left my house. It just made me so angry, so confused. What had I done to deserve such luck of the draw? And what had these poor Jews done to deserve such a brutal fate?

Our tour guide walked us through the camp, relaying the true story of a girl named Chaya who was ripped away from her mother at the very spot where we were standing. Immediately, my mind darted to the scene of my own mother, dropping me off at the airport two days before. She kissed me over and over again, making a huge, embarrassing scene in front of all of my friends. But I would surely see her again in just a few days, and I knew it. Chaya didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye to her mother, and she never saw her again. More and more guilt built up in my chest.

It was the same at all the other camps we visited. In Auschwitz, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the glass showcase that held thousands of locks of hair; they belonged to all the innocent people who had been murdered there. The Nazis had shoved those people into a gas chamber, and cut off all their hair once they had passed. I held on tightly to my own, long, wavy brown hair, that I have refused to cut all year long. My hair was my security blanket. I could never imagine being stripped of something so personal.

We then walked into a gas chamber, and there are no words to describe the sight. All along the black walls were scratches. These were the marks of people who were trying, with all their might, to get out. Why is it that I was fortunate enough to have the freedom to walk out of the chamber, of my own volition, just after a few minutes?

These are just a few of the events that made me feel this way, although many more occurred over the next few day in Poland. I found myself repeatedly asking, “How could such evil exist in the world? How could people be so cruel?” It just didn’t make sense to me.

But something happened on our last day in Poland that made me realize that my mindset was focused in the wrong direction. We were in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, walking around the exhibits. It was evident that our tour-guide had a physical disability, and each time we would walk into another room, dozens of eyes would follow her, and people would snicker. One group of girls, unrelated to our program, made me particularly angry. They were around my age, and they stared intensely at the tour-guide, laughing at her, and openly mimicking her demeanor. My eyes began to well up with tears, and I started to choke up. How could they? How could people be so cruel?

And then a lightbulb went off in my head, and I realized why the situation was affecting me so deeply: there was a common theme.

Intolerance is still extremely prevalent in the world today, and it was also a driving force for the events of the Holocaust. If people are not accepting and sensitive towards others, damage is bound to occur.

I was not going to stand idly by and let these girls continue. Therefore a few of us worked up the courage to approach them, and tell them how terrible they were being, and how they needed to stop. The girls just smirked, and continued to video tape the tour-guide.

I’m not sure I would have reacted this way had I not experienced what I had in the previous days in Poland. The Holocaust is not an event of the past. If we don’t stand up for others, and stop the intolerance that exists everywhere, history can repeat itself.

After that day, I realized that I needed to stop asking the “why” and “how” questions that about what led to the Holocaust, and instead, focus my energy on doing everything I can to ensure that nothing like it will ever happen again.

This story won a Certificate of Merit in First-person Experience Writing in the 2016 national Gold Circle awards from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.