The Gold Shoes
Helga Morrisey held perfectly still, her shoulders squeezing into her chest, her legs pressed tightly together. She stopped breathing, listening to the silence while the auctioneer at the lectern in the front of the room scanned the seated crowd and finally called, “I am bid five thousand dollars, do I hear another bid?”
In a few minutes, a well preserved pair of embroidered gold Regency slippers, dated circa 1820, belonged to her. Her exuberance was tinged with some guilt concerning the amount of money she’d spent. She watched from her wooden chair as the auctioneer’s assistant, a middle-aged women with yellow short hair, carefully wound up some trailing silk ribbons attached to the vamps, and placed the pair of taper-toed satin and leather flats into a hinged, plastic display box.
Later that evening, after a delicious gourmet dinner she and her boyfriend fixed and ate together, Helga sat cross-legged, still dressed in her business suit and stockings, on their queen-sized bed. Her documentation, history and costume books surrounded her, and the clear container with the shoes rested beside her. Her boyfriend, Alex Levine, stood with his arms folded, watching her from the foot of the bed. A sheaf of printed pages was in her lap. She looked up and smiled. “Well, say it,” she prodded.
Alex, still in his custom-made dark-blue shirt and multicolored tie, twisted his mouth a little, trying very hard to be judicious. “I guess I can’t complain,” he said.
“No, no you can’t, not after the Porsche Cayman.”
“Which you love,” he reminded her.
“Which I do love, but that’s not the point. I collect pieces from the Romantic era, we’re both young, successful attorneys, and we have no children, so….” She returned to reading.
Alex sighed, sat on the edge of the bed and twisted around to face her. “So, what exactly are they? Where are they from?”
“It’s the oddest thing,” she answered, thumbing through the pages. “The history is detailed, but remains mysterious.”
She was flushed with excitement and looked very pretty, her brown, shiny hair pulled back on the top of her head. Alex reached out and rubbed one of her glossy ankles. “Are you going to try them on?” he asked, not very seriously.
She brushed off his hand, glanced up and narrowed her eyes. “Babe, you know better than that,” she said sharply. She reached for one of her books and dropped it on her folded legs and began flipping pages.
That was the assistant prosecutor of Franklin County, Ohio, talking, Alex knew. His boss. He straightened and laughed. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Can I look at them, hold them?” he asked. “The shoes, I mean.” He grinned.
Helga nodded, reached around and shoved the box towards him, but continued studying her text.
Alex was a reasonably careful and capable man, a prosecuting attorney known for precision and thoroughness. He pulled himself a little further onto the plush floral comforter, and cautiously lifted one of the vintage shoes. “Has this been appraised? Is it genuine nineteenth century?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” Helga answered firmly and quickly. “I was told the original dealer is very reputable. And Southerbys’ auction in Columbus was advertised around the world.”
Alex stroked the satin and leather, saw the tiny, impeccable stitches that connected the vamp to the throat. He fingered the exquisite embroidered flowers that decorated the sides, and the silk and lace bow above the toe. The gold color was patchy and faded but it was obvious the shoes had once been vibrant, like drops of sunshine on someone’s feet. The remains of the cream-colored silk ribbons dangled. Alex felt a kind of contentment cuddling the shoe. He looked carefully inside the one he held, the left, and studied a label attached at the heel. It was almost unreadable. “I can make out some letters or symbols,” he said to himself, “and an address of some sort, but I can’t quite decipher the language. I don’t think Jane Austen could have worn these.”
Helga looked up. “No, that’s what’s so confusing,” she said. “The shoes were sold by a collector in Germany who obtained them from an estate in Poland.” As the words escaped her, Helga winced and mentally screamed at herself for saying them.
“Poland, Germany?” Alex immediately responded. He continued to stroke the shoe he held. “What are you talking about?”
“These are antiques, Alex. They date from 1820. They were owned by a young lady of the Szlachta or Polish nobility. They belonged to someone’s family or personal collection in Poland.”
“Then how did they get to Germany?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they were a gift, maybe someone bought them, maybe they were stolen. Geez, Alex, don’t go off on the Nazis and the Holocaust again.”
“Yeah….” he tried to agree. But he could feel a percolating ball of anger deep in his gut. He replaced the shoe he held, and scooped up the other one. He inspected it. “These ribbons were pulled apart violently,” he announced after a minute.
Helga closed her book with a clap. “What now?”
“Whenever it happened, however long ago, the ribbons were torn apart; I’m a trained forensics investigator. Also, one of them was yanked from the anchoring threads, here,…” he said as he reached the shoe in her direction and pointed. “I need to get a magnifying glass to make sure, but I can still see the wisps of silk where it was torn.”
Helga looked consternated, her wrists loosely resting on the book in her lap. After several seconds she said, “Well, that’s interesting. The collection was originally put up for sale in Wiesbaden-Hauptbahnhof, by some dealer located on,…” she checked her notes, “… Wilhelmstrasse. It says here the shoes were owned by the Rozwadowski family in Brodne.”
Alex came to his feet, still cradling one of the shoes. “I’m going to find a magnifying glass,” he said before Helga could protest. He strode out of the bedroom, then returned, and threw himself back to sit beside Helga, making her pitch as the mattress shifted. “Let’s see if the right shoe has any markings in it….” he said as he put the glass to his eye and peered into the slipper he carried.
“Wait, wait a minute,…” Helga said loudly, a trickle of doubt making her feel uneasy. “Regency shoes were straight. There was no left or right shoe.” She reached for the other flat remaining in the fancy plastic container. She let out air in a part-gasp, part-sigh as she inspected it. Clearly there was a slight insole curve, the convex side facing left. “What the hell?”
Alex lowered the magnifier and dropped it on the bed. He lifted his head and stared at her. “Did you check them before you bought them? Because the writing in this shoe is in Yiddish, and those symbols are a Jewish shoemaker’s stamp.”
She held the left gold slipper in both hands, her shoulders slouching, as she gazed at him. Her eyes began to burn. “What?” was all she could manage. She shook her head.
Alex tilted his head slightly and smiled with understanding. He reached out one hand and gently touched the side of her face.
Her eyes filled. “I’m such an idiot. Southerbys’ is considered one of the most reliable auction houses in the world. I took their word for it. I’m sure I can get my money back.” Anger was gnawing at her now, replacing any feelings of embarrassment or shame.
“Sweetheart, I think you’re missing the point here,” Alex said calmly. “Do you know what these are?”
Helga tossed the left slipper into the box and began hopping herself sideways to get off the bed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“These beautiful gold shoes were made with love, and given with love, and worn with love by some girl in Poland, and were torn away from her, probably at the same time her life was torn away from her.”
Helga swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood unsteadily. She wiped her nose and eyes with one sleeve, sniffing, almost sobbing. “You don’t know that. You’re pulling it out of your ass,” she said, her back to him.
“I reconstruct crime scenes all the time. It’s my job,” Alex responded, still seated but moving so he could see her more easily. “Were these shoes stolen by a farmer or local official and confiscated by a German officer? Or, did they arrive with a young woman who thought she was being resettled in the east, only to be ripped off her feet as she was herded to the gas chamber. Were they kept and saved by some SS guard or Nazi official because they were too lovely and brilliantly fashioned to toss onto the heap to be sent back for reprocessing in the Fatherland?”
Helga pulled herself up and squared her shoulders. She turned to face him. “I don’t want to hear it, do you understand?” she said defensively, not trying to hide her dismay. “I’m sorry, okay? I’ll get the money back tomorrow.” She walked around the bed, and started for the bathroom.
“Wait, honey,” Alex called after her as she closed the door. He worked his way off the bed and stood, continuing to hold one of the gold, embroidered slippers. “I’ll pay you for them. I don’t want you to take them back. It’s not right.”
The door cracked open several inches, then wider. She stepped out and stood in the threshold, her hair bedraggled, her arms hanging into fists. He had never seen her so shaken and upset. “Why?” she asked. “What are we going to with them, keep them in the closet? Display them for guests — for your family? — here are a pair of girls’ shoes from Auschwitz, we bought them for five-thousand dollars.”
Alex felt emotionally drained. They had been together for three years, even talked about marriage. They rarely argued, and when they did, logic and open-mindedness usually prevailed. She cherished his willingness to analyze and compromise, and he respected her ability to put emotion aside. “So,” he said quietly, “we give them back to the auction house and tell them, you sold us the slippers of some dead Jewish girl circa 1942, take them back? Or, we throw them away? I can’t do that.”
She walked in a tight circle, throwing out her hands. “Alex, just put them back in the box and take them off my bed. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. We have to get up early. Both of us have important cases….” She abruptly halted, looking at him.
They watched each other in silence for a time.
“Maybe….” he started.
“Well, maybe….” she said at the same time. Then she added, “What were you going to say?” as he paused.
“I was just thinking … we could donate the shoes to a Holocaust museum,” Alex said slowly, waiting for her reaction.
“That’s what I was going to say, too,” Helga agreed, and nodded enthusiastically. She gave him a warm smile. “I’m going to get ready for bed,” she stated, and disappeared into the bathroom once more.
“I’ll go clean up the kitchen,” Alex yelled to the door. But he didn’t move right away. A wave of anxiety and insecurity seized him as he looked down at the gold slipper still clutched in one of his hands.