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Remembering the Things That Remain

A Polish artist invites a journalist to dig into disturbing remnants from the Holocaust that Poland would rather keep buried.

Amos Barshad | Longreads | January 2020 | 20 minutes (4,985 words)

In the spring of 2019 I start getting emails from a guy in Poland named Grzegorz Kwiatkowski. He’s a poet and a musician from Gdansk, a midsize town on the north coast of Poland, on the Baltic Sea. His band is called Trupa Trupa.

I’d never heard of them before, but I regularly write about music, so I regularly get emails about bands that I’ve never heard of. These emails, though, are different. He writes things like:

sorry for disturbing
i hope you are not offended
only good weather

Kwiatkowski’s emails suggests we are not quite pals, but familiar somehow. Estranged, but tenderly working on our relationship?

I listen to Trupa Trupa, and I like their tunes straight away. They’re spacey, soothingly repetitive, and creepy, like taking a warm bath with the lights off in the middle of the night. Singing in English, Kwiatkwoski rolls out sharp shards of phrases — like “jolly new songs” or “we never we never forget / humiliation” or “only good weather” — over and over.

One day Kwiatkwoski sends me another email, this one about the thousands of shoes he’d found in the woods outside of Stutthof, a Nazi concentration camp near Gdansk. This had happened in 2015. In the years since, Kwiatkowski explains, he and his Trupa Trupa bandmate Rafał Wojczal had pushed the Stutthof Museum to take proper ownership of these shoes.

Kwiatkowski also includes a 2015 letter that Wojczal had sent to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum: “Back in May, me and my friend found thousands of soles and whole shoes in the woods just across the fence of museum. We asked museum service what is it and why is it there. They replied that they had never been there and never seen that pile of stuff.”

Stutthof was a center of redistribution for shoes during the Holocaust. Shoes were taken from prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp in the south of Poland, and from prisoners throughout the Third Reich’s concentration camps, and sent to Stuthoff. There, prisoners were forced to search the shoes for hidden valuables, and to mend them. The shoes would then be shipped for use by the general German population throughout the Reich.

The U.S.S.R.’s Red Army reached Stutthof on May 9th, 1945. It was the last camp to be liberated by the Allies. When the Red Army arrived, they found an estimated half million shoes. Some of the shoes were eventually archived and displayed by the Stutthof Museum. Many more, it turned out, were just left to rot in the woods. It was, in a way, a small open secret. After reading a passing mention in Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, a 2013 memoir by the Auschwitz survivor and historian Otto Dov Kulka, Wojczal and Kwiatkowski sought out the shoes in the woods.

Once Kwiatkowski and Wojczal contacted the Stutthof Museum, though, the institution did not react with any alarm. And three years later, Radio-Canada reported that the museum’s director Piotr Tarnowski — “whose building sits about 300 metres from the first openly visible carpet of shoes” — continued to shrug them off as an unavoidable detritus of war. Rather than treat the shoes as historical artifacts, the director suggested it was OK if they were simply swallowed up by the forest. After long enough, Tarnowski told the Canadian radio journalists, “nature takes over.”

***

The context for this strange story is the historical revisionism of Law and Justice, the far-right party that has been in power in Poland since 2015. Their mission, in part, has been to shed collective guilt by downplaying the mass extermination of the Jews in the name of recasting Polish people — full stop — as victims of the Third Reich.

In February 2018, the government passed the so-called “Holocaust Law,” which made it a criminal offense to accuse Poland of any connections with Nazi war crimes. After an international outcry — the EU threatened to strip the country of its voting rights, the first time the governing body has ever invoked that penalty — the offense was modified from criminal to civil. But the law is very much active.

Poland’s policing of the Holocaust narrative extends internationally. In mid-November, 2019, Polish government officials confronted Netflix over maps in the documentary The Devil Next Door, which depicted Nazi death camps within Polish borders. The maps weren’t actually wrong; there were, of course, Nazi death camps within Polish borders. But Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted the Swastika-riddled maps omitted the fact that Poland was then under Nazi control. Netflix bowed to the pressure and promised to amend the maps. The facts there weren’t so important; it was a sudden platform for Poland to claim a singular mastery over history.

Domestically, Law and Justice seeks new arenas to fight their memory wars. Last year, Foreign Policy reported that the party is “focus[ed on] winning direct control of museums and memorials that mark critical times in Polish history.” University of Jena researchers have called it “the politics of memory.” In this climate, the Stutthof shoes are a hindrance. The shoes don’t fit fit into the story Law and Justice wants to tell.

I don’t know any of that when I get Kwiatkowski’s email. I write to him that I’m interested in the topic of the shoes, that I’d like to find a time to talk. He responds right away.

we are big fighters!
and we will win this battle
cause its a battle for truth
maybe we could talk on whatsup?

A few minutes later we’re on the phone, and for the next hour, Kwiatkowski speaks uninterruptedly. “They don’t want another story of Jewish victims here!” he tells me.

Kwiatkowski is not Jewish, but he clarifies that his grandfather Józef was imprisoned at Stutthof in the end of 1942. Kwiatkowski says that Józef was jailed as a dissident and that his crime was secretly attempting to continue his education under Nazi occupation. Looking into the history of the shoes, Kwiatkowksi claims, he learned of an allegation that in the 1960s a Stutthof Museum director had recruited local schoolchildren to help him move masses of leftover shoes deeper into the forest. (When asked to comment on this allegation, a museum spokesperson later declined to confirm or deny because “we do not have official information on this topic.”)

“We are really into history,” Kwiatkowski says, by way of goodbye. “We are not making stuff cynically. We are making it with our heart. And we are fighting with — yeah — with evil.”

***

Two months later, I fly from London to Gdansk. Kwiatkowski picks me up at Lech Walesa Airport. He wears what, he explains, he always wears: dark shoes, a blue Oxford, and skinny black trousers tailored with gold tassels by the wardrobe department at the Gdansk theater where he has worked as a publicist for the past 12 years. His hair is cut, he also explains, like it’s always cut: a Beatles-informed bowl cut. He repeats for me his instructions to his hairdresser: “I want to look like a fucking stupid kid.” Later, I’ll come to think of Kwiatkowski as very particular, very modern, very Polish showman.

We get into his black Opel and go straight to Stutthof. We pass pleasant countryside orchards and tall roadside crucifixes, the kind where Jesus looks like he’s really suffering. Kwiatkowski speaks as he did on the phone, in a near unstoppable rush. He ticks off a litany of Poland’s 20th-century tragedies, from the Intelligenzaktion, the Nazi’s extermination of the country’s professional and intellectual elites, through the postwar Communist regime. He says, “It’s not easy to build a normal society when you have 10,000 traumas on your back.”

He asks me about my Jewish background. “What about your family, about the Holocaust?” he says. “Of course you don’t have to answer.” He tells me he rewatches Shoah — Claude Lanzmann’s seminal, nearly-10-hour Holocaust documentary — every year. He describes his poetry collections, one of which he titled They Should Not Be Born, “because life is suffering of course.” Nonetheless, eight months ago, despite years of his own protestations — “I’m really afraid of humans” — he and his wife had a son, Franz Lev. (For, respectively, Kafka and Tolstoy). “I’m very sad to Franz Lev that he is in the world, but it happened and we have to deal with it.”

After about an hour Kwiatkowski pulls the car into the half-empty parking lot at Stutthof. We walk out and take a left at the museum’s entrance, then follow a thin path. On our right is the neat, fenced-in Stutthof Museum grounds. On our left are healthy woods full of browns and deep greens. After a few minutes, Kwiatkwoski turns into a clearing and I follow. We are just barely past the official boundaries of the museum’s grounds.

We walk up into a small mound and look around us. The sun breaks through the treeline and dapples the forest floor. When Kwiatkowski first came here, he explains, there were visible piles of shoes on at this spot. “And when you dug into the ground, a lot of them, a lot of them.” In the dirt underneath the visible piles, there were more shoes, buried.

All the shoes are supposed to be gone now. Over the course of the reporting of the Radio-Canada documentary, Stutthof Museum promised the reporters to investigate the grounds of the museum and, it was implied, to take ownership of the shoes. To reclaim them. But by way of illustrating his anecdote, Kwiatkowski starts scouring the soft soil on the top of the mound. And he immediately finds new scraps.

They are black leather soles with what appear to be nail-hole perforations.

Now, together, we start pulling up the decomposed material. I write in my notebook with dirt on my hands. I pull past the dry leaves, the twigs, the moss. I root through branches and roots. We pull and pull.

Some pieces are substantial, immediately recognizable as what was once a person’s shoe. Some are just barely anything. Some are heels, and some heels are very small. A whole chunk crumbles in my hand. A sharp point pricks me — it could be a nail, or a pine cone. A train squeals in the distance. Back on the path, bikers cycle by. Kwiatkwoski says his friends think he’s obsessed with darkness. Quickly, we assemble neat piles of black shoe scraps. Kwiatkowski moves over a few feet, starts scraping up the soil there, and starts excavating another batch.

My shirtsleeves are rolled up. My sunglasses keep falling out of my shirt pocket. I have a stainless steel water bottle and a packet of dried figs. I’m wearing jeans, sneakers, and camouflage socks. My feet hurt. It’s inefficient, this method, coming here in our city clothes and grabbing through the dirt with our bare hands.

I know this has been documented. I know news outlets have reported on this discovery. But I can’t help but feel like I’m being had. Like this is a ruse. I can’t help but feel like Kwiatkwoski has planted these here.

Kwiatkwoski has to go to his car and get his laptop; there’s some urgent issue with tonight’s performance at the theater. I’m alone. All I want is to find my own pile of shoes. I put my stuff down in a loose pile and kneel and start digging through the soil, as heartily as I can. Bits of organic material stick in wet leaves. Dark bark. Soil. I need to find leather.

Looking back behind me at the divots I’ve made, it looks like some mild cult ritual has occurred. I wait for someone to come and stop me but no one ever does.

On the path, a family of four walks by. The children chirp to one another. The father pauses and briefly considers me, an adult man alone in the woods, through the trees. He decides I’m not a threat and walks on. Farther away, a motorbike revs. There are no plastic bags, no beer cans, no cigarette butts. I am horrified but I am, I realize, also grateful. I have never done anything like this. I have never gotten to dig with my own hands through dirt for something like this.

Eventually I do find my own batch of scraps. They’re thinner than the soles we’ve already found. Fragmented, long strips. Some are arrayed in a line, one sole after the other, as if pointing forward. Some are clumped together, as if that gives them weight. Some are piled together, as if that makes them make more sense.

Afterward, Kwiatwkoski returns, and we walk through the official museum grounds. Stutthof was primarily a slave labor camp. More than 60,000 people died here — shot, hung, starved, burned alive in the crematorium, injected with phenol into the heart. When the Nazis attempted to evacuate the camps before the Allied forces arrived, thousands of Stutthof prisoners were forced onto death marches. Five thousand of them were marched from Stutthof to the Baltic coast in January 1945. At the sea, there were sprays of machine-gun fire.

In the museum’s cinema, they show us footage taken by Red Army soldiers as they liberated Stutthof. It shows that original mountain of shoes — a pile of about half a million. The video also mentions how Zyklon B, the pesticide poison used by the Nazis at Stuffhof and the other gas chambers, smelled like almonds.

***

That night I sleep on the couch in Kwiatkowski’s apartment. We get in late after a few hours of drinking and he makes himself a stovetop concoction of milk, butter, honey, and garlic. He says it’ll be good for his voice, which is ragged. Over and over through the night, he’s been attempting a line from a Trupa Trupa song: “I dream about, I dream about!” Every time, it comes out squirrely.

Earlier we were in the woods near a cemetery with Kwiatkoski and his friends and beers, and I’d been cadging a lot of cigarettes from someone. At one point I acknowledged the cadging of the cigarettes and said thank you. The person did a kind of cartoonish evil cackle and blurted, “And I will laugh when this Jew will get sick!”

The next day, Trupa Trupa is playing a show at a festival, in Katowice, in the south of Poland. I get in a van with the whole band very, very early in the morning and we drive down together. I meet Wojczal, the guitarist, who found the shoes with Kwiatkowksi, and the rest of the band. They’re friendly and curious and chatty and warm. We talk a lot about antisemitism in modern Poland — about where it exists and how. Wojczal wants me to understand that there are levels of antisemitism in Poland. That just because someone makes a joke or repeats an old stereotype, it doesn’t mean they really hold strong feelings against Jews. Later in the afternoon, they play a great set, intense and buoyantly fuzzed-out. Kwiatkwoski shuts his eyes and emotes hard with his big wide face. When that “dream about” line comes, he finishes the couplet: “I dream about / I dream about / no one, no way.”

Later that night, that same person with the cigarettes, drunker than before, makes another joke. He tells me later that night he’ll bang on my hotel door “like a real Pole” and he will shout, “Let me in, you fucking Jew!”

Back in London, I think about Kwiatkwoski and how he’s maybe one of those people that hoovers everything up and then shoves it all forward into storylines he’s already written. Into thoughts he’s already had. Back at the woods, when Kwiatkwoski had returned from sending his work email, he told me, somberly, that I was the first Jew to have come with him to these Stutthof woods.

I had thought I was coming to Gdansk to write a story that was straightforward enough. Poland is a country trying to own history. And at Stutthof, there is a small, concrete example of that process. Something I could observe. In doing so, I’d lodge one tiny complaint against the memory wars of Law and Justice.

But it’s not just Law and Justice, and it’s not just Poland, and it’s not just now. Alain Goldschlager is a professor at the University of Western Ontario and the founder of the Holocaust Literature Research Institute. He speaks in warm tones and makes me laugh easily. “The denial of the Poles of their past toward the Jewish community is no surprise,” he tells me. “They have done that since the first day after the war.”

He tells me that Auschwitz became Auschwitz — a world-famous center of Jewish suffering “with, you know, all those nice American kids going there” — without the encouragement of Polish authorities. “There was no indication whatsoever that the dead were Jewish and no memorial or symbols were present. We have to wait until the ’80s to see the fact [acknowledged] that out of 1.1 million killed, 1 million were Jewish.” The AP, July, 1990: “Plaques have been removed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp memorial that inflated the total number of victims while understating the preponderance of Jews.”

Goldschlager argues the country has always wanted to commemorate, first and foremost, the tragedies of the non-Jewish Poles. Law and Justice’s actions, then, can be seen as “a continuation,” Goldschlager says. “But now it’s permeated into the legal system. They say, ‘We are strong enough politically, we can impose on the discourse. You cannot say anything about Poland [during World War II] that we do not approve.’”

There are also memory wars beyond Poland and throughout Eastern Europe. Andrea Peto, a professor at Budapest’s Central European University, tells me about sonar-equipped divers who recently swam through the Danube looking for the remains of victims shot and thrown into the river; to date, they have found nothing. She also tells me about Rechnitz, a town on the Hungary-Austria border — as the Red Army approached in 1945, 180 Hungary Jews were killed by SS and SA officers. When the officers got the order, they were attending a party at the castle of a baroness of the Thyssen family (to this day, a European corporate dynasty). They left the party, only to return in bloody clothes. Somehow, the graves of the victims of the Rechnitz massacre have never been found. “In Hungary,” Peto says, “they’d rather look for remains which are obviously not there.”

Ultimately, new evidence, new artifacts — it’s bothersome. “Everybody has a narrative, you know?” Goldschlager tells me. “And that’s true for the Jewish community, too. So with time passing you have a nice clean picture of who were the criminals who were the victims, and how it was done, and so, everything is perfect.”

Goldschlager ticks off a few examples of Holocaust stories that, he contends, have never been fully told. One is the heroic efforts made by Albania to save Jews. The other is the Nazi annihilation of Germans of African descent. “Everybody mentions … Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Roma. Nobody speaks of the Afro-Germans.” Goldschlager tells me he once mentioned this to a friend at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, an organization within the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He recalls being told something to the effect of Yes, we know. But it would be quite an undertaking to start raising those kinds of questions.

I reached out the D.C. museum myself to talk about Stutthof and was told by a publicist that there wasn’t anyone available to specifically speak about the shoes. The publicist did eventually redirect me to an archivist, but made sure to note, “We are not in a position to tell memorial sites what to do where things are found in situ.”

We know about the shoes and the people the shoes belonged to. The Stutthof Museum doesn’t want to hear about it again. The narrative has been sealed. And so there is just the horror of leaving something behind.

***

Otto Dov Kulka — the author of Landscapes Of The Metropolis Of Death, the memoir that initially tipped off Kwiatkowski to the existence of the shoes — was not imprisoned at Stutthof. His mother was. She was transferred from Auschwitz — she was pregnant at the time — and died a few months before Stutthof was liberated in May 1945. Years later, Kulka found out more. She gave birth in secret with the help of friends in the camp. “The infant was healthy and screamed like a healthy infant,” he writes, “and SS men who were about to approach brought about his end. Those same women friends terminated his life.”

Years later, Kulka came to see Stutthof himself. “My eyes were fixed on the ground,” he writes. “And as I scour the grass like this, aimlessly, almost every few steps I encounter strips of leather — dark, some rotted, dried out.” Kulka includes a photo of a shoe. It looks exactly like the shoes I saw. Kulka found the shoes in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until his memoir was published, in 2013, that Kulka publicized his discovery. Then Kwiatkwoski arrived, making all that noise.

After requesting an interview from Stutthof Museum, I receive instead a statement from Tarnoski, the museum’s longtime director, written on official museum letterhead. Tarnowski’s statement emphasizes that the shoes were found on land technically belonging to another government body, Polish State Forests, and that it was only after “a several-month and outrageous public dispute” that the museum was even granted access to search the land. He underlines that they pushed through this adversity and conducted an official archeological search of the area. “We wanted to avoid the situation when the objects were taken over by … people with pathological inclinations.”

Ultimately, Tarnowski estimates that “several hundred kilograms of excavated shoes” were salvaged. They were then placed, out of sight, inside the Monument of Struggle and Martyrdom, a concrete behemoth on museum grounds that also holds human remains from the Stutthof crematorium. After his explanation, Tarnowski concludes, “I refrain from commenting [on] the allusions that Poles and the Stutthof Museum neglect to take care of the memory of Jewish victims.”

I follow up later and tell them about the shoes that I myself saw. I get an email back from a museum spokesperson: “Everything [t]hat we want to say about the shoes is in the Museum Director’s statement. I send you the statement in my first mail. The forest around the Stutthof Museum belongs to the Polish State Forests.”

Małgorzata Wosińska is a cultural anthropologist and psychotraumatologist. She’d previously conducted research projects at Stutthof Museum and currently works for the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, a group funded in part by the government. She also knows Grzegorz Kwiatkowski. In fact, she reminds me of him. Both of them speak at a full throttle, with a lot of f-bombs. “Grzegorz had very good intentions,” she says, “but he treated [the shoes] in a kind of poetic, aesthetic sense. As a symbol. A phantasmatic visual cliche. But the truth is that the shoes are not coming from Jews.”

Wosińska contends the shoes’ backstory is complicated. She says that while the shoes were possibly owned by victims of the Holocaust, it is more than likely the shoes came from a variety of sources — possibly Nazi guards stationed on the site of the discovery of the shoes, or from the Communist-era military barracks later built there. She says the site where the shoes were found was not the site where Stutthof’s Jewish population was held.

According to Danuta Drywa, an archivist at Stutthof Museum, out of 110,000 people imprisoned at Stutthof, a little less than half were Jews. Out of 65,000 people killed, a little less than half were Jews. As to the provenance of the shoes, Drywa says vaguely, they “were brought from various countries to shoemaker workshops in the camp.”

With Wosińska, I push back: Does it matter where the shoes were physically found? If the shoes were transported from Auschwitz or elsewhere, then, surely, they could have ended up anywhere on the Stutthof site?

“Maybe, maybe, maybe,” she says softly. Then, with volume again, she pivots to the real issue, as she sees it. “If you’re asking me if we have a problem — we have a fucking problem.” But Stutthof, she says, isn’t it. “Stuthoff is a memorial site mostly devoted to Polish people — they have money!” There are other death camps elsewhere in Poland, at Treblinka and Chełmno. These were atrociously efficient camps and they were almost entirely devoted to the extermination of Jews, and Wosińska contends they are dramatically underfunded and poorly maintained. “I’m telling you, as a Polish Jew, this is the tragedy of the Polish Jewish memorial sites. We are fucking poor.”

Still, Wosinska claims, “it’s too easy to say that the current Polish government is antisemitic.” The motivation for their actions. Wosinska argues, is not quite as straightforward as antisemitism. “These are the people who are taking care of the memory,” she says. “They are crazy about the memory.”

It takes me a while, but I come to understand this as a worthwhile distinction. As Christian Davies has argued in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Law and Justice is “not driven by ideology, but by something more akin to a mood.” And that mood “fuels not only antisemitism, but all kinds of other prejudices and conspiracies — about almost all racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, about anyone who does not share their worldview.”

By positioning themselves as the vanguard of history, Law and Justice gin up grievances and appeal to their right-wing base. This is all both genuine hate and a strategic calculation. There is no absolute ideology. But there is a sad, crude logic to it all. Trampling the other narratives, the other truths, they fight for a complete sovereignty over the memories of Poland.

Speaking as a Jew now, of Law and Justice, Wosińska adds a dark joke: “They are working for Jewish memory as well, unexpectedly. Thanks to them, we have some fucking attention.” It’s become an international talking point. Everyone knows Poland is trying to control the history of the Nazi extermination of the Jews on Polish land.

***

Karolina Sulej is a writer and anthropologist. She’s done research at camps throughout Poland, including Stutthof. (She’s also friendly with Kwiatkowski. The Holocaust scene in Poland, apparently, is quite small.) Sulej believes the museum — a “small provincial seaside” one, without the financial power of Auschwitz — has made a good faith effort to respond to the situation of the shoes. “It’s gonna take 10 to 12 years at least and 100,000 zlotys a month” — about $25,000 — “to do it properly,” she says. “You need [excavate] the soil down to a couple of meters. You need heavy machinery, heavy funds.”

But unlike Wosińska, Sulej doesn’t absolve Stutthof of guilt. She admits that her tempered defense of the failings of the museum is just a practical answer. She wonders perhaps if it would be best “to inform people about the landscape. The site of genocide. Maybe if the shoes cannot be rescued from the soil, the interest of people will protect the shoes. Maybe it will be best to say it out loud and people can come and pay respect to the things that remain.”

Sulej knows professional archaeologists would never let the shoes stay in the woods in some semiofficial liminal state. But I like the idea. In his memoir, Kulka writes, “I picked up one or two of them without knowing what I was doing … this is undoubtedly what I wanted to do, and did, with these strips of leather.” I think again about how grateful I was to be there, to be able to dig through the dirt.

For a few weeks after I get back from Poland, I don’t want to write anything about it. By the time I left Poland, I felt like I had come not as a writer but as a Jew and, therefore, as a representative of suffering. A role I didn’t have interest in fulfilling. I could guess what Kwiatkowski might say about the jokes I’d heard. That they were just an internalization of Poland’s antisemitism. That the jokes were a parody of ignorance. I wouldn’t even necessarily disagree. But it didn’t matter. They left me feeling like shit anyway. I don’t want to think about it.

Kwiatkowski sends me impassioned emails checking in on me and on my piece; he encourages and prods. Mostly, I don’t respond. After a while I tell him, yes, I don’t know what it will be, but I’ve decided I will try and write something.

In the next email that Kwiatkowksi sends me, he writes:

i just really think its your s p i r i t u a l topic
i remember moment when we discovered this shoes in the forrest
in my opinion its just not normal regular topic
it’s something more
for you and for me
maybe i am wrong but i dont think so
so i can really wait some time
but you should write about it
ive got strong feeling that its a story also about you
not only another journalist work
which i respect of course
but i really think its something more
and now i shut up

I know the only people anyone pays attention to are the ones that make a lot of noise. In the end, Kwiatkowksi had managed to make his obsession my obsession. And now you’re here, too, reading this.

***

Amos Barshad is the author of No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate The World. He lives in London.

Editor: Matt Giles
Fact checker: Samantha Schuyler
Copy editor: Jacob Gross