The Story Behind the Song

Among the exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is a room filled with the shoes that the Nazis’ victims were forced to discard before they were gassed. The words on the plaque next to the haunting, horrific display are an unlikely inspiration for a song, but leave it to Yiddish balladeer Michoel Schnitzler to take a phrase from that plaque — “Mir zenen shich, mir zenen letzter eidus” (We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses) — and turn it into the heartbreaking song “Di Shich Fartzeilen” (released on his 2009 album, Mein Kind Treff Mich). Schnitzler recalls the impact those words had on him and his on-the-spot decision to make them into a song.

“Years ago, my nephew visited the museum and sent me a picture of the plaque with the words: ‘We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses. We are the shoes of grandchildren and grandfathers…. And because we’re only made of fabric and leather, and not blood and flesh, each of us avoided the hellfire.’ We added lyrics that describe the journey of those shoes from all over Europe, where they might have been worn, and then their final journey and removal — while their owners walk their last few steps toward death.”

Schnitzler is a child of Holocaust survivors, but his mother never discussed the hellish suffering that she had undergone in the Nazi camps. “We knew nothing,” he says, “until ten years ago, when my mother began to suffer from dementia. She began to speak in her native Hungarian, and some pieces of the puzzle emerged. For the first time, we heard about her “job” in Auschwitz: She was assigned to clean up after the horrific ‘medical experiments’ of Mengele yemach shemo.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 718)