Tonya and the red shoes
Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Trinity College runs on trimesters. Spring Break is three weeks, and we’re in the middle of it.
Spring Break last year, for some of us, was 10 days overseas. In some ways, we’re still in the middle of that one, too.
Some of you have just gotten back from the same trip. If you’re anything like me, music and bread are, for some time, going to sound and taste like they never have done before.
You may be a while, too, in forming any coherent responses.
This, after a while, was mine.
I only recently started to like shoes, so my collection, though it fills the floor of my closet, could still be called limited. Most of mine are brown or black: one pair is silver. But there are girls who’ve been building their accessory portfolios much longer, who have a double layer of shoes on their closet floors, maybe one pair of heels and one of flats to match every sweater.
I have been trying to expand, though. For a long time, now, I’ve been looking for a pair of red heels to bring out the accents in one of my formal dresses.
I did end up finding a pair over last year’s Spring Break. But they belong to someone else.
I don’t really know who she was, or how frequently she liked to wear them, or what she wore them with. But almost 70 years after she took them off for the last time, I found them in a place I’d never expected.
We’d been studying this place in class. It was horrific, as were other places like it, and we’d read and heard so much about the horror that the stories had begun to repeat themselves. I thought at this point, when we walked through these places, I might actually be numb to them.
At that point it was only history.
After half a semester of readings, lectures, and quizzes, last year’s Holocaust class left for our Spring Break trip to Europe. On the second day we visited Majdanek, a concentration camp a few hours outside Warsaw. Majdanek isn’t as big as Auschwitz, or as geared to tourists. But still, as we heard once again on the bus ride over, it’d hosted cruelty and death. Some of us would go on to write papers about it.
Back on campus we’d spent the past weeks trudging from building to building through snow and ice, the wind cutting straight through our heavy jackets. Now, still shaking off jet lag, we were trudging from building to building through mud and very cold rain. We talked later about what working barefoot in that weather would be like. I almost went through the tour coatless, for solidarity, but decided that’d be melodramatic and unnecessary. And I was cold enough as it was.
Toward the beginning we went through the men’s “bath house”, and saw the delousing tubs, and the showers. Then, in the same building, we saw a gas chamber. There were turquoise stains on the walls.
Then we saw the living quarters. And a model of the whole camp. And then at some point we walked into a barracks that was filled with racks and racks of shoes.
That was when I stopped feeling cold.
Most of the shoes were brown with decay. From a distance they all looked alike. Up close they varied in size and detail. Some had empty holes for laces. Some may have once been pretty sandals. Some were like clogs or work boots. Some belonged to children.
And then, right in the middle of one rack full of brown, there was a splash of very bright red.
It was a woman’s high heeled shoe. Only the back was visible. But it was very visibly red.
These were statement shoes. They might have been defiant when they’d been new, and they might still be defiant now.
They matched the ribbon belt on my dress.
I stared at the shoe for a long time. I thought about who might have worn it:
She was a sophisticated, single Polish Jew. She was sociable. She was fashion-conscious. She went by two names, Tonya to her gentile friends and Leah to her family. She owned a black suit with red piping, and for the evenings a red dress to go dancing in. Her red shoes matched both.
They were her favorites. They made her feel confident, and beautiful, and strong. When she was being “deported”, she might have only happened to have been wearing them. Or she might have known where she was going, and put them on for a reason.
She’d wear them while standing up in a moving cattle car for a week. She wore them when she arrived at Majdanek.
I knew the rest from class. And I couldn’t see Tonya surviving it. But at least now I knew Tonya. I’d found her shoes.
So I’d found a perfect pair of red shoes last Spring Break, even though I couldn’t put them on.
But I can wear them again.
If I ever find red shoes of my own, I’ll share them with Tonya, just like she shared hers with me.
She was probably a better dancer than me. Hopefully, when we go out, that’ll rub off.
Katherine Khorey may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.