The Austrian Boy and his Shoes

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The picture moves you to happy tears the moment you see it. The gentle curve of the child’s cheeks make you think that the innocence of infancy remains a permanent guest. The little okra-seed sized teeth speak volumes of the childlike fancy that sits in his innocent laughter. The happiness is palpable: a pair of chubby little fingers clutch a pair of shoes to the chest of the little boy. His little round knees are stuck together as he celebrates his present.

Six-year-old Austrian boy, Werfel, was photographed when he got a new pair of shoes at the Am Himmel orphanage, donated to him by the Junior Red Cross in the United States of America. The photograph was first published in LIFE magazine on December 30, 1946 (on page 22) and later, again, on September 24, 1951 (on page 180). The photograph was shot by Gerald Waller, in 1946, and was titled “New Shoes”. The little boy, Werfel, was among the children who were brought to the USA after being deported from Israel / Palestine, where they arrived after liberation from the concentration camps.

The image was published with the following caption in the 1946 issue.

“EUROPE’S CHILDREN – Christmas brings joy and sadness

For many of Europe’s children there was a Santa Claus this Christmas. When a big box from the American Red Cross arrived at Vienna’s Am Himmel orphanage, shoes and coats and dresses tumbled out. Like the youngster (above), the children who had seen no new clothes throughout the war smiled to high heaven. But for thousands of other European children there was no Santa Claus. When a boatload of illegal Jewish immigrants arrived at Haifa, Palestine recently, two Polish children (opposite) got separated from their parents. Tears filled the eyes of the boy, and his wan sister clutched him protectively. They were later reunited with their parents, but the whole family was shipped to Cyprus. (+)”

The picture is a beautiful effort in capturing the quintessence of childlike happiness. The abandon that children feel and profess, enjoying happiness in the littlest of things, in a life that an adult might otherwise be quick to profess as being filled with misery. The child’s ability to enjoy and cherish what has just been given to him: notwithstanding the fact that he lives in an orphanage, notwithstanding the historical events that had just unfolded snatching his comfortable life away from him, notwithstanding the fact that these were hand-me-downs, reminds you how flawed our thinking is, to look at the negatives and focus on them. The expression of absolute purity in happiness is reminiscent of how beautiful life is – and wakes you up to straighten your own thinking when life strikes you down on occasion.

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