It is one of the more unusual relics of the Holocaust, which had lain in a university library probably unnoticed for nearly half a century.
But the sole of a child’s shoe, made from parchment cut out of a Torah scroll from Greece, bears witness to the “near annihilation of Sephardi Jewry in Southern Europe”, according to the academic who rediscovered it.
The sole, which could fit into the palm of a hand, is one of a pair that was collected by the doyen of Anglo-Jewish historians, Cecil Roth, during a visit to Greece the year after the end of the Second World War. It was sold as part of the historian’s collection to Leeds University in the mid-60s — a Canadian museum has the right sole.
Dr Jay Prosser, reader in humanities at Leeds, came across the object when he was “poking about” in the collection some 10 to 15 years ago and was immediately fascinated.
As Roth noted, the Nazis were “perverse collectors” who hoarded Judaica for a research institute into Jewish artefacts even as they sought to wipe out the people who used them.
There are three other known instances of soles cut from a Torah scroll, in Yad Vashem in Israel - two which lined the boots of a German officer and one of unknown provenance.
But Dr Prosser, who has published his findings in the journal Holocaust Studies this month, believes it was not the Nazis who produced the object.
The sole is more likely the work of local Greeks, reflecting the despoliation of Jewish property after the deportation of Jews to the camps.
The Torah scroll was “cut up by a non-Jew because they needed to make shoes and they didn’t have any leather,” he said.
As it happened, most of the cobblers seemed to be Jewish and had been sent to Auschwitz, he pointed out.
At 84 per cent, the death toll of Greek Jewry was among the highest in the Holocaust.
“That the soles are small and likely to have been intended for a child’s shoes adds to their poignancy - the sad and searing feeling they induce of vulnerability, innocence, and inexplicable loss in the face of massive destruction,” he said.
He found that the fragments of Torah in the soles belonged to the final two portions of Exodus, Vayakhel and Pekudei, that would have been read immediately before the deportation of the Jews of Salonika, a major Europeaan Sephardi centre, in March 1943.
In other words, whoever found the scroll cut the fragments from the point to which it had been rolled by its Jewish users before the Nazis transported them to their death.
The two portions recount how the Israelis built the Tabernacle, their portable sanctuary, in the wilderness. It was “uncanny for this account of construction of a dwelling for the sacred in exile only itself to be desecrated and taken apart at a subsequent time when Jews had been deported from another home,” Prosser noted in his Holocaust Studies article.
He believes, however, that the scroll did not come from Salonika but from the smaller community of the city of Arta, which Roth visited in 1946. Of its 384 Jews, 84 per cent perished in the Holocaust.
Now he wonders how many other soles were made and how many people might have walked round in fragments of a Torah left by Jews who “had been deported and incinerated”.
Dr Prosser, who is a member of the new Jewish community of York, said, “I couldn’t read Hebrew when I started looking at the item. That’s something I have done,I have learned it.”
Researching such artefacts was important, he said, because “objects connect us to the personal stories of the past in a way that facts and figures often can’t. These relics, both sacred and sacrilegious at the same time, symbolise the holiest text of Judaism being trodden underfoot.”