Ideas

The Invisible Shoes of Stutthof Concentration Camp

In 2015, the poet-musician Grzegorz Kwiatkowski made a strange discovery at the site of the former Stutthof concentration camp in Poland — something he calls “a carpet of abandoned shoes.” But these were more than shoes: they're both artifacts and symbols of the Holocaust — as well as a flashpoint of nationalist denialism and historical amnesia — especially in the current climate of authoritarianism, and the rising ghosts of neo-fascism.

Unearthed Holocaust artifacts reveal a buried story

About 65,000 inmates died in the Stutthof death camp that operated from September 1939 to May 1945. These shoes gathered in one of the barracks at the camp are believed to be items belonging to the prisoners. (Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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In 2015, a strange discovery was made near the site of the former Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. Poet-musician Grzegorz Kwiatkowski and a friend walked into a pine forest and found "a lot of shoes."

"Not a lot like a hundred, but a lot like thousands of hundreds, hundreds of thousands,"  Kwiatkowski said. The two kept digging up more and more shoes from the ground.

Children's shoes. Women's shoes. Shoes likely surrendered by Jews when they arrived at the death camp. 

The Stutthof concentration camp operated from September 1939 to May 1945. It housed 110,000 prisoners from 25 countries and 27 nationalities — 65,000 of them perished there. The camp supplied slave labour to the Nazi war machine, and was also the laboratory for making soap from the fat of thousands of victims.

Erasing history

The Stutthof Museum, founded in 1968, takes up only about one-fifth of the former campground. The diminutive proportion is telling: Kwiatkowski's discovery came at a moment when history itself is under heated scrutiny in Poland.

In January of 2018, the Polish parliament passed a law making it "illegal" to accuse the Polish authorities, or Polish citizens, of complicity in the Holocaust. In fact, the deputy Culture Minister called for a "Polocaust" museum to commemorate Poles killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. 

A view of the 'Death Gate' at the German Nazi death camp Stutthof — the first Nazi concentration camp built outside of Germany, in a wooded area west of the small town of Sztutowo, Poland. (Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

And yet the shoes were still there when radio producers David Zane Mairowitz and Malgorzata Zerwe went to Stutthof. They're not really whole shoes anymore — they're mostly rotten strips of leather jutting out of the soil.

Official interest in the shoes remains muted. When asked to describe what was found in the area, Stutthof Museum Director Piotr Tarnowski said, "Everything left over from the camp. Hidden German weapons, for example. After that, nature takes over."

Many people want to change history. I feel these shoes, this is the old truth.-   Grzegorz Kwiatkowski

But on that very day, the radio makers came across heavy machinery tracks in the forest, and wondered whether the machines were giving "nature" a hand?

Tarnowski claims these tracks are from the previous fall, even though the tracks were fresh. The director added the tractor marks aren't always visible, because the earth is soft.

In time, nobody will see the shoes anymore because nature really will have taken over.

'Invisible' artifacts

None of the local administrators have seen the fragments before 2015. Not the museum director, whose building sits about 300 metres from the first openly visible carpet of shoes. Not even the archivist, Mrs. Drywa.

"I've worked here for 30 years, and none of my colleagues ever spoke about artifacts lying in the forest around the museum," Drywa told the London Daily Telegraph.

Even the leader of an archaeological team from the museum, Piotr Chruscielski, who grew up in the immediate surroundings did not know about the shoes.

"I saw neither shoes nor any other artifacts. I only saw the shoes which are in the glass case on display in the museum, but nobody in my village ever mentioned other objects lying in the forest," he said.

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski says the discovery of the prisoners' shoes at Stutthof has left its mark on him — his grandfather was a prisoner there. (Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

But the shoes themselves still have a story to tell. And that story is more important than ever as knowledge of the Holocaust is — stunningly — on the decline.

"For us, the shoes lying untouched is a metaphor for the way in which a country like Poland — there are others of course— deals with its own history," said renowned Holocaust historian Otto DovKulka"Namely, that the shoes that were sent to Stutthof from Auschwitz belonged to the thousands of murdered Jews in the gas chambers within the Nazi so-called 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question.'"

'The old truth'

In January 2019, on Holocaust Memorial Day, demonstrators marched outside the Auschwitz camp site with signs reading: "Auschwitz: Made in Germany." Underneath the words were a Nazi flag and a German flag with an "equals" sign between them.

The protesters have a point: it was the Nazis, not the Poles, who orchestrated the Holocaust.

But Kwiatkowski believes these shoes tell a story that is vital for future generations: "Many people want to change history. I feel these shoes, this is the old truth. So, we have to secure these artifacts from the Holocaust because it will not be so easy to say it didn't happen. It's kind of an anti-war statement, but also a 'never forget' statement."



Guests in this episode:

  • Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, poet-musician and member of Trupa Trupa.Their song Wasteland is featured in this episode. 
  • Marcin Tyminski, press attaché of the local conservation administration
  • Piotr Tarnowski, director Stutthof Museum
  • Piotr Chruscielski, Stuffhof Museum archaeologist
  • Agnieszka Kowalska, provincial administration curator

** This documentary was produced by David Zane Mairowitz and Malgorzata Zerwe.

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