The Little Shoes from Auschwitz


Conservation work involved in the cleaning of several thousand children’s shoes found after the Red Army liberated Auschwitz Concentration Camp in January 1945 will go on through most of August.

The shoes are being cleaned by a group of six graduates of the specialized “Landmarks Renovator” program at the vocational school in Oświęcim, under the supervision of experts from the Museum Preservation Department.

These young people first came to the Museum when they were students, to help clean adults’ shoes. Many of them broke off working and wept when they came across children’s shoes. Now, as then, and despite their experience at such work, the task is not an easy one.

First, soft brushes are used for the preliminary removal of dust. Next, they are mechanically vacuumed, washed, and lightly oiled with a mixture of white spirit, oil, and alcohol. The purpose of this is to make the leather more pliable and to reduce its propensity to absorb moisture from the air.

During the present work, one of the shoes was found to contain a small Nivea cream tin and a fragment of a letter in Polish. During the previous cleaning of the shoes, preservationists found fragments of French, Polish, and German newspapers used as lining or padding, letters with addresses, and two Hungarian banknotes from the World War II era.

Children in Auschwitz

It is estimated that there were about 230,000 children and young people under 18 among the approximately 1,300,000 people whom the German Nazis deported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp from 1940-1945. The majority of them—over 216,000—were Jewish children. Over 11,000 were Gypsy (Roma) children, and the remainder included Polish, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, and Russian children.

The majority of the children arrived in Auschwitz along with their families during the various Nazi operations aimed at entire ethnic or social groups: the total extermination of the Jewish people; the isolation and extermination of the Gypsy (Roma) population; the resettlement and deportation to Auschwitz of entire Polish families from the Zamość region and from Warsaw during the Uprising that began there in August 1944; and Byelorussians and other Soviet citizens in reprisal for partisan activity in German-occupied territory there.

Only slightly more than 20,000 children and young people, including 11,000 Gypsies, were entered in the camp records. 650 of them lived to see freedom when Auschwitz was liberated.

The Museum Collections

Aside from the shoes, the Museum collections contain approximately 1,850 kilograms of human hair, 3,800 suitcases, 12,000 pots and pans, 40 cubic meters of metal objects from the “Kanada” warehouses in Birkenau, and 6,000 artistic exhibits, including about 2,000 artistic objects made by prisoners in the concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz.

Brushes being used in the preliminary cleaning of shoes. Photo: jarmen
Brushes being used...
An orthopedic shoe, one of several thousand preserved childrens’ shoes. Photo: jarmen
An orthopedic shoe,...
A Nivea cream tin and fragment of a letter found in shoes. Photo: jarmen
A Nivea cream tin...