Conserving a beloved artefact

photograph of a child's shoe

Child’s shoe, donated to the VHEC by Yacov Handeli. 1997.009.001

This child’s shoe, recovered from the Kanada barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, has been used by the VHEC in several past exhibitions to represent the loss of life and experience of children during the Holocaust. The shoe is a favourite of docents and visitors alike. In 2017, we noticed that bits of leather were flaking off the artefact in storage and so we reached out to the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) for help. The CCI provides conservation treatments for selected objects that either have significant historical and cultural value or are challenging and require explorations into conservation treatment and science. As part of their analytical and conservation work, we learned that the item is a child-sized left ankle boot made from brown leather, consistent with a derby/blucher styling, and likely had a raised heel block. The leather, and partially visible textile lining, is soiled. It has stiffened into its current flattened form, causing warping and strain on the remaining intact stitching. The sole is detached from the upper, its 6.5 remaining metal eyelets are corroded.

Conservator Lauren Osmond analysed the artefact and prepared a treatment plan, which included cleaning to remove dust and debris, and consolidating the flaking and crumbling areas of the leather using an appropriate adhesive. Osmond stabilized some of the loose fabric elements around the toe and heel. The outsole stitching holes still have the original stitching thread in them, and those threads were left in place. She created a storage box for the item using conservation-grade materials. Reflecting on her experience working on this project, Osmond wrote, “As a conservator, I have had the opportunity to care for a range of objects, some more challenging than others. Working on this child’s shoe was difficult on an emotional level. The memory that this shoe holds is profound and reminded me of how artefacts have the power to prevent us from forgetting.”

The artefact is now on display as part of In Focus: The Holocaust through the VHEC Collection.

Article reproduced from the Spring 2023 issue of Zachor magazine. Read more: