What's special about these shoes is that they have tiny Darth Vaders and Storm Troopers checkered all over them. Even to a non-Star Wars fan, that's pretty cool. Other than that, they're unremarkable.
Comfortable. Versatile. Durable. Functional. Although only a few months old, they are scuffed and well-worn. Their white soles already marked from climbing trees and exploring parks, playgrounds and backyards. They are I'm-a-big-kid-now shoes, full of adventure, potential, growth and a future of life and possibility. We know they won't fit him forever, but for now, they're perfect.
The problem with these shoes is that one is lost. An active afternoon of earnest play and fun brought him home with one shoe on, and one shoe most definitely off. Gone. Tossed over the hedge. Hidden in the neighbor's brush. Unable to be found and never to be seen again. Not even with a ladder.
The problem with shoes, all shoes, is that they're absolutely useless when one is missing. There's not much you can do with one shoe. Actually, there's nothing you can do with one shoe. Shoes operate together. In a pair. Two shoes are a run on a hot beach or a walk on a snow-covered road. They're a party, a movie or a game of tennis. They're a small boy climbing in a tree with his friends because that's what small boys do, or a quiet stroll with the one you love on a warm, gentle evening.
They watch us, our shoes. They bear witness to our journeys and adventures, our struggles and our joy, our fear, our pain, our elation and our weariness. They are quiet and present, completely inanimate. But if they could talk with their long, wagging tongues or the short ones that never seem to come out all the way, they would have much to share about our lives and experiences in this world.
Only if there are two.
Two shoes are how it works. One shoe is futile.
Last week, I was reminded of this when I met someone new: Dr. Andy. Dr. Andy is a wonderful doctor, kind and caring, attentive and empathic. With entertaining and honest personal stories that he loves to share. Partly, I imagine, to put his patients at ease, and also because he enjoys the opportunity to make them laugh, cry, gasp in horror or frown in concern. To hear them say, "Are you serious?" or "I'm so happy for you!" or, "Oh no, I'm sorry." He tells his stories because he wants the people he is with at that moment to share in his experiences. To offer them a way to relate to him, and probably a way for him to relate back. As is the human condition. We relate to each other. It's how we work.
I hope I don't have to see Dr. Andy too often, but I loved our few minutes together. He confirmed I did not have pneumonia, and told me he had been feeling similar: congested, feverish, with a nasty cough and difficulty breathing. But before he did that he told me about his father, a Holocaust survivor, whose 90-something-year-old mind and body are frail and almost incompetent.
In lucid moments the old father shares memories and stories with Dr. Andy and tells his son how proud he is of him. Andy showed me a photo of his father's number from Auschwitz, tattooed forever into his arm. It is blurred with age and time, and the green ink screams in stark contrast to his wrinkled, harmless skin.
I don't have a known relative who survived the Holocaust. But by the time Dr. Andy finished telling me about his beautiful father, we both had tears in our eyes. The horrific death of six million Jews and the widespread hatred, panic and desolation of the Holocaust is a close and personal experience for many. And it is also a collective experience. One we experience as Jews, as people, as humans all over the world. Never forget.
At the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. there is a permanent exhibition I have visited with my son: shoes. An enormous gray pile of 4,000 tattered shoes.
The Nazis confiscated the shoes of Holocaust victims in the killing centers of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. When Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau were liberated, the troops found hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes. And very few living prisoners.
You have never seen anything like this sea of shoes.
Above the awful, heart-searing collection is an excerpt from the poem "I Saw a Mountain" by Holocaust survivor and Yiddish poet Moses Schulstein z"l:
We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers.
From Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.
My boy's lonely shoe will never more run down the street with his brothers nor look for snails with his friends. Not again will it witness the free, growing life of hope and possibility. It's useless on its own.
But I'm going to hang onto it.