A man in blue rubber gloves scrapes rust from the eyelets of small brown shoes worn by children before they were gassed in a contemporary conservation lab built on the grounds of the former Auschwitz camp.
Colleagues at the other end of a long work table gently wipe the dirt and grime off the leather of the delicate goods using circular motions and soft towels.
The shoes are then scanned, photographed, and cataloged in a database in a nearby room.
The project is part of a two-year project to conserve 8,000 children’s shoes at the former concentration and extermination camp where German soldiers killed 1.1 million people during World War II that was begun last month.
The site was in a section of Poland that the German Reich conquered and occupied during the war.
It is now a memorial and museum run by the Polish government, charged with the sad duty of preserving the site’s evidence because Poles were also among the victims.
At Treblinka and other concentration camps, the Germans completely obliterated all proof of their atrocities, but when they fled the approaching Soviet forces in confusion toward the end of the war, they left some evidence behind at the massive Auschwitz.
Some evidence is disappearing due to the effects of time and widespread tourism eight decades later.
It is prohibited to photograph sacred human remains, and no conservation measures are made with the hair removed from victims to manufacture fabric. It is becoming dust.
But there are still more than 100,000 pairs of victimized shoes, 80,000 of which are displayed in massive heaps in a place with everyday foot traffic.
Many have twisted, their original colors have faded, and the shoe laces have fallen off, yet they stand as reminders of lives tragically cut short.
The tiny slippers and shoes are particularly heartbreaking.
“Children’s shoes are the most moving object for me because there is no greater tragedy than the tragedy of children,” said Mirosaw Maciaszczyk, a conservationist from Poland.
Since the effort started last month, the museum has processed 400 pairs of shoes, conserving around 100 pairs weekly.
The goal is to make them as near to how they were discovered after the war as feasible rather than to restore them to their original state.
The majority of the shoes are singular items. A pair with shoelaces still attached is unusual.
Workers cleaning adult shoes last year discovered an Italian 100 lire bill inside a woman’s high-heeled shoe that was also branded with the name Ranzini, a Trieste-based shoe manufacturer.
There is no information available about the owner, who was probably Italian.