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Can a Shoe Sole Speak? 
(A work in progress)

1. Finding


About 10 years ago I was poking about in the University of Leeds library when I came across an extraordinary object. I sort of knew what it was but not fully. It gave me goosebumps. It was obviously a shoe sole that had not been completed into a shoe. It had Hebrew writing on it. It was catalogued as from a Pentateuchal scroll, so I knew it came from a Torah scroll, a Sefer Torah, which Jews read from weekly in synagogues. It was part of the Cecil Roth collection, some of whose books, manuscripts and personal papers we hold at the University of Leeds.

Roth visited Salonika in Greece in July 1946. As I found when I started reading his published and unpublished documents associated with his trip, including a photograph album put together by the surviving Jewish community of Salonika. Roth was one of the first Jewish reporters on the scene in post-Holocaust Greece. I discovered that he was a very early witness and chronicler of its devastation, what Raphael Lemkin in relation to the Shoah called the ‘cultural genocide’, of Jewish history, heritage and community life. Looking at the album and reading his reports, I found that Roth witnessed, for example, not only the terrible destruction of the Jewish cemetery in Salonika which was still going on after the Holocaust in 1946, but also the terrible ‘repurposing’ of the tombstones, a further desecration of Jewish culture used as paving stones and still to be found around Thessaloniki, to construct the new university, even to repair Greek Orthodox churches.

The shoe sole derived from and similarly came to exist as a result of this desecrating-of-the-sacred context. I discovered that Roth collected the shoe sole, either in Arta in northwest Greece, or in Salonika. The shoe sole is catalogued in Leeds as being from Salonika. In fact, retracing Roth’s earlier writings, I think it originally came from Arta, but Roth, recognising the symbolic power of the shoe sole, used it to represent the devastation of the Holocaust in all of Greece, and in particular in Salonika.

2. Discovering

I then went on a further journey of discovery.

I discovered that Greece had one of the highest death tolls of the Holocaust, at 84 percent who did not survive, and that in Salonika, the principal Jewish city of Greece, the loss was even greater. It was greater not only in percentage (50,000; 87%), but also in symbolism and cultural weight. Before the war Salonika had been known as the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’, the ‘jewel of Sephardi Jewry. It held, and largely allowed to live without persecution under the Ottoman Empire, descendants of thousands of the Sephardi Jews who had fled Spain as a result of the 1492 expulsion who took up the Ottoman sultan’s offer of welcome. Before the Second World War, Salonika was a highlight of the Jewish world, particularly Sephardi, though it needs saying that there was antisemitism, from both Greeks and Turks, well before the war, particularly at the start of the C20th.

I discovered what happened. The Nazis invaded Greece in 1941 and began the occupation. With the invasion, also came the plundering of Jewish property. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, led by the Nazis’ chief ideologue Alfred Rosenberg who was empowered by Hitler to raid Jewish archives and cultural heritage for a new Institute for the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, had been active in Greece, with its eye on Salonika’s Sephardi treasures, since 1941. Jews started to be robbed of their property – the centuries-old cemetery in particular – even before they had been deported. Beginning in March 1943 and not taking more than a few weeks, 50,000 Jewish citizens of Salonika were expelled (again) and transported by train, mainly to Auschwitz. In the photograph above, you witness their being made to gather at the train station just before their terrible journey. All Jewish property was handed to the Greek state in 1943.


However, there was also general looting and despoliation by non-Jews. Plundering of property and deracination of people intertwined, sometimes in powerful symbolism with a Torah scroll trodden underfoot. I discovered how, in his testimony for the USC Visual History Archive, Dan Saporta recounts that, when the heads of the families of Spanish citizenship were ordered to present at Beth Saul synagogue in Salonika, they stepped on rubble and pieces of Sefer Torah.

But the non-Jewish Greeks also suffered under the Nazis, and this is a story that the shoe sole also powerfully speaks. I discovered that, under Nazi rule, many goods were extremely hard to come by, and that included shoes. A report on conditions in Nazi-occupied Greece by British intelligence operating in Greece, produced in August 1943 just a month after the Salonika deportations had been completed, notes the exorbitant price of goods and specifies shoes. The cost of shoes was used as a measure of deprivation. The Bishop of Karystia told the intelligence officer that his salary was so poor that it ‘wouldn’t buy me a decent pair of shoes.’ It cannot have helped that before deportation many of the cobblers seem likely to have been Jewish.

I discovered that even before the deportations were completed, when in Salonika Jews were confined to ghettoes, beginning March 1943, shoes could no longer be repaired. I discovered how – and perhaps why – even before Jewish citizens had been deported, their non-Jewish neighbours rushed to abandoned Jewish houses and shops and synagogues, looking for useful as well as valuable goods. Jewish objects were given, what has been called in an East European context, a ‘second life’, and the Sefer Torah, which must be made of animal skin, not paper, hence material for leather, was given ‘second life’ as a shoe sole. I thought about the irony of that term for the Torah scroll shoe sole, since Jewish bodies and cultural life had to be destroyed for the production of the sole. It was not simply a stolen, everyday object. I discovered, then that where a Jewish sacred cultural object (a Sefer Torah is the most sacred cultural object in Judaism) was killed, a Greek object for everyday use was born. I realised that the shoe sole spoke profoundly about the relations between non-Jews and Jews in Greece during, but also before and after, the war.

And then I looked closely at the Hebrew writing.


What parasha, or portion read weekly in synagogues, of the Torah was the shoe sole from? Could it be deciphered and pieced together, and if so what did it say? I had only begun to learn Hebrew at about the same time that I discovered the sole, because I thought I’d need it to write a family memoir. I didn’t, but the learning certainly came in useful for the shoe sole.

I discovered that the shoe sole is from Va-Yakhel, meaning ‘he collected’ or ‘he gathered’, in Exodus, and it describes the building of the mishkan (the ark or tabernacle) during the exile of the Israelites in the wilderness. I realised how uncanny and extraordinary it was for this account of the construction of a dwelling for the sacred in exile itself to be desecrated and cut to pieces at a subsequent time when Jews (Sephardi Jewry of Salonika) had been deported from another home. The scroll sole seemed to speak two Shoahs or catastrophes: that in exile in the Torah; that in Salonika and Greece in 1943-44. The shoe sole radiated what Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi has called Zakhor: the eternal recurrence of memory that is Jewish history, the presence of the archetypal, cultural and religious past – in the present. I had another spinetingling moment. It was almost as if this Sefer Torah shoe sole scrap had predicted its own desecration.

And then I discovered another shoe sole. Not just any other Sefer Torah shoe sole (I had by this stage unearthed a further three at Yad Vashem, though without the unique affectivity or stories and rich symbolism of the Roth Sefer Torah shoe sole). This new Sefer Torah shoe sole was in another Roth collection, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Toronto, and it turned out to be the other half to the Leeds Roth shoe sole, the right sole to Leeds’s left. I think I also discovered how and when these soles were separated, but I’ll have to leave that story for another time.

For, more unbelievably, what I discovered, when I put the two soles together, is that the story on the right shoe sole continues directly from the story of the left shoe sole: that is, the ark is still being built in the wilderness. The right shoe sole also includes some of the next parasha, Pekudei, records. So together the shoe soles said, ‘he collected . . . records’, which is exactly what Roth did when he collected these shoe soles in Greece in July 1946. He collected records of the Shoah.

Then I began to get interested in dates. Knowing that parashot are read in an ordered cycle over the Jewish year on successive shabbats and festivals, I thought I should be able to trace when these readings should have been read in the synagogues. I made one more discovery, which I guess should not have surprised me, but which nevertheless felt horribly poignant and deeply tragic. These two parashot that the left and right shoe soles were cut from are the very parashot that should have been read on the two successive shabbats exactly prior to the deportations of Jews from Salonika in March 1943. A Torah scroll is always rolled up to where a reading has just been completed, so that the new reading can continue the following week. The scroll must have fallen open at this point. Thus, the Greek, cobbler (or not), cut the scroll up at this part in the Torah. The act both was arbitrary, but also feels preordained, or maybe the better word is ‘storied.’

3. Feeling

There are many things the shoe soles (now two) do not speak. Although I’ve published an academic article about all this research, and even though I couldn’t help putting something of my personal response to the shoe soles into that article, there wasn’t a place in academic writing to put all of what I felt and feel about these sacred desecrated, Jewish, non-Jewish objects: how they have touched me and changed me, how I think they can touch and move anyone who comes into contact with them and their story.

They are, for a start, very embodied objects. Objects, and particularly relics, which these Sefer Torah shoe soles are, have the power to touch us deeply. As Laura Levitt has described in her work on contemporary (non-religious) relics, ‘as we hold them, tend to them, relics in turn offer us tenderness’. I have held the Leeds shoe sole many times in my hand, and it left its impression on me, changed me. Then there is all the embodied-ness of reading from a Torah scroll. Though we do not touch it with our hand, we get close to it, and we are supposed to regard it as a relic of God’s words actually dictated to Moses.

The Sefer Torah shoe soles were never finished. Which is why we have them. Quite possibly, indeed quite likely, there were many soles made from Sifrei Torah, which were in turn made into shoes, which in turn were walked around on by non-Jews, Greeks and possibly others, during and after the Shoah. We will never know.

And so there are many unanswered questions. Why were the shoe soles never finished? Who was the man or woman they were intended for, and what happened to him or her? Who was the ‘cobbler’, amateur or otherwise, who cut and sewed the soles? How did he or she feel about this act? Who stole the Sefer Torah scroll, what synagogue was it from, and what happened to the Jews who read from this sacred text? How many times had it been used to pray, who were the bodies who stood and swayed and chanted before it, and how can we best remember them? Who was the scribe who created the Sefer Torah, when did he produce it, and what was his experience of writing the scroll?

I believe only a more imaginative form than academic research can begin to address these questions. For me this is creative nonfiction, a form of storytelling that marries research, imaginative reconstruction, and my own past and ongoing story with the shoe soles.

This is my current task. 

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