She’s proud of her delicate feet,
her fine ankles and shapely,
slender calves, bare below
The red shoes are her favourites.
She wears them for luck,
to charm the eye of –
The journey was hell on earth.
No air, long hours
standing in darkness, jostled
by sweaty men.
But her red shoes, invisible in the
murk, gave her joy –
gave her hope. Their perky
crimson roses, smart little heels,
still clean, she hopes,
despite … But, no, she won’t
think of that.
They’re stopping now. She’s
climbing down, into
air that is fresh. Hope rewarded,
the world survives.
Trees. She sees distant trees – and,
on either side of the
railway tracks, row upon row
of chimneys, of
low buildings, like soldiers’ barracks.
Perhaps some gallant officer will
take a fancy to her.
She twitches the rose-sprigged fabric
of her best
summer skirt, smooths the embroidered
sleeve of her blouse.
A young woman, all lace and flowers.
She feels for
her favourite hat, tilts it
to one side,
blinks in the sun, eyes watering
after so long
without light. Dark, eyes, deep eyes.
that’s what he’d said, her fiancé,
who went before,
who never wrote. But she won’t
think about that.
Her throat tickles. It should get better,
her cough, here, in
this pure air. But with another breath
One clean white handkerchief still
remains, in the pocket
of her skirt. She holds it to her mouth.
Sees red spots.
No! It cannot be that! It’s just the strain.
She blames the
jolting, the close confinement. The
lack of air,
the stench of the excrement bowl. Her
unwilling to drink from a bucket common
men suck from.
They’re being herded, moving. Soon she’s
close to a uniformed
man, who looks directly at her
She steps forward, bag straining her arm –
she packed as much
as she could carry. Perhaps he’s
taken a fancy,
this distinguished looking man?
a beguiling smile – but his eyes
You have a cough?
She shrugs. It’s nothing – It will pass. But she
coughs again, puts
the white square to her mouth, again. It spots,
red, with blood, again.
You are sick.
The uniformed man – a doctor – raises his arm.
Points to the right.
Rough men push and shove her.
She stumbles away,
still in her lucky shoes. A man takes her bag,
her precious bag.
Her world in a leather hold-all. Her
and talcum powder, her shawl, nightgown –
her mother’s necklace.
All she has left, they take from her.
Shower! Get clean!
With other anxious, trembling women she
strips. And now,
even her pretty summer clothes, her red
shoes are gone.
A sliver of soap in hand, she leaves a small
towel they gave her
behind, steps inside a crowded
her naked flesh pressed against naked flesh
under shower heads.
There’s not enough room [they daren’t complain]
When no more bodies will fit, the guards
slam the door.
Drop in the canisters. Close
The marks of her red nails remain on
the sooty walls
where she screamed, eyes streaming,
crammed against the wall by
naked bodies until she, too,
in the world.
I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau on January 6th, Epiphany day in the Catholic church’s calendar. Above you will find pictures showing (from the bottom):
the end of the line to Birkenau, where a uniformed doctor (Mengele, for example, who conducted his experiments in Block 10 of the Auschwitz camp) did indeed make decisions on life and death. As our guide said, “The movement of a hand, right or left, meant life or death.”
one of the remaining gas chambers, part of it a ‘changing room’ the other part the windowless death chamber with vents in the roof for dropping in the Zyklon B gas canisters
a demolished gas chamber – as the Germans realised the end was nigh for their cause they tried to hide the evidence, but failed
brick built accommodation blocks (I use that term loosely, they were dreadful inhumane places. After the war the many wooden structures were scavenged for wood for local use
chimneys of demolished blocks
a wagon such as would have been used to to transport my girl in her red shoes, and in which there was one bucket of drinking water and one bucket for use as a lavatory
luggage taken from victims as they arrived. They were told they could bring up to 50 kg of personal belongings.
the shoe that moved me to write, to bring a human – albeit an imaginary one – to life. This and countless other shoes, including children’s sandals, were in rooms filled with human hair (from all the shaved heads and bodies, male and female) , spectacles, prosthetic limbs, shaving brushes, everyday utensils and – gas canisters.
I felt this was the least I could do. Very much, the least. What I really must do – and we all must do – is ensure nothing like this happens again. Sadly there are still inhumane atrocities happening in our world, even as I write.
When will we ever learn?
The official website: http://auschwitz.org/en/