Vol. 14


First Grade with No Shoes

1940s; Tarnobrzeg, Poland; and Yoshkar-Ola, Russia, USSR

My great-grandmother Frances Birnbaum went to school without shoes. Isn’t that crazy?! I mean, just think about going to school without your blue Nikes or your gold Adidases! It started during World War II in my great-grandmother’s small hometown of Tarnobrzeg, Poland.

The year was 1940, a long time ago — before iPhone XR and Nintendo Switch were even invented! My great-grandmother was six years old and in first grade. She lived with her parents Gela and Moshe, who owned a shoe store, and her younger sister, Helen.

One day my great-grandmother was looking in her parents’ shoe store for a new pair of shoes, when the German Nazi soldiers stormed up to the door. BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG! “OPEN THIS DOOR IMMEDIATELY!” the German Nazis screamed.

“Can we just get Frances a new pair of shoes?” her parents begged.

“NO, GO OUT NOW!” the German Nazi soldiers yelled back.

My great-grandmother and almost all of the Jewish people in her small town in Poland were kicked out of their homes and forced to live in work camps in Russia. My great-grandmother ended up going to school in Yoshkar-Ola, Russia, without any shoes! It was so freezing cold and snowy in Russia that you could build more than fifteen snowmen! The crystal snow was often as high as the rooftops. My great-grandmother had to walk every day to school and back. There was no school bus or carpool — and there were no shoes! The walk from her home to school was so far that most of us today would want to take a fancy coach bus with TV, reclining seats, and Wi-Fi on it. My poor great-grandmother had none of that! Her mother tried to make DIY1 shoes by wrapping rags around my great-grandmother’s tiny ankles, but her toes were still numb and turned purple like an eggplant!

“Excellent, Frances!” her teacher proudly exclaimed. “Another gold star for you!” My great-grandmother was the best student in her new school in Russia. I’m sure you are probably saying, “That is unbelievable! How can a little girl with no shoes who lives in one room of a peasant’s house be the smartest in her class?” But this is all true!

My great-grandmother was a very smart and very hard-working student. Her mother used to cook soup in exchange for a Jewish man nearby to tutor her, along with her friend Ruchel Rappaport, every night after school. But my great-grandmother was such a good student that she no longer needed the tutor and instead became the teacher’s pet.

“A special reward for you, Frances,” her teacher told her one day.

“What could it be?” my great-grandmother wondered. No, it was not slime! No, it was not a $100 Amazon gift card! It was a little white box that made my great-grandmother’s dream come true! It was a pair of plain black Mary Jane shoes2 that she received from her teacher as a reward for being the best student!

Sarah Kalter; New York, USA


1. “DIY” stands for “do-it-yourself” — made or repaired with substitute materials or methods.

2. Mary Jane shoes are low-cut, low-heeled shoes with a rounded closed toe and a strap across the instep.



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