A Shoe that Survived

Helena Szendrei


I’m the granddaughter of a holocaust survivor. I was 15 years old when I started high school. Knowing I would have to face a lot of discrimination because I was a Roma, my grandmother bought me these gold Adidas shoes. They are very comfortable and light—good for running, kicking and fighting. I chose them because I knew they would help me a lot.


In 1999, I started high school in Hungary. Before the first day, my grandmother took me shopping. I chose gold Adidas. I knew I might need to run fast to get away from bullies who would try to hurt me because I was a Roma.

My grandmother told me about her Holocaust story. She lost her father during the Second World War. Her first son was born in the ghetto and taken away from her by the Nazis. She never found him. Since she survived the worst, she said that I could survive whatever happens. 

Every morning I knew I would have to get ready emotionally and physically to manage in school. Sometimes teachers discriminated against me. For example, every time I raised my hand, the teachers would never pick me. I never got my exams back, but all the other kids who were not Roma did. Schoolmates always attacked me. I was always pushed away.

My gold running shoes helped me in many tight situations. They’ve been through so much with me. They were on my feet every day, whenever I was trying to escape, or I was in a physical fight. I was lucky to have two brothers. They taught me how to fight and defend myself.

One day, a couple of students followed me and began beating me up, but I fought back. I was hitting and punching everything I could see. Since my shoes were very light and comfortable, I was able to run away quickly. It came to the point that if anybody said anything hurtful, I would not care. I started to build my own rules about defending myself. Every morning, I made sure my long hair was tied tightly in a bun. I got dressed in comfortable clothes, and of course, my Adidas.

At lunchtime, a few weeks later, those girls beat me up in the washroom. This time, I couldn’t escape because four girls blocked the door. They beat me up so bad that blood was running out of my mouth. While they were hitting me, they were saying, “you’re worth nothing, you gypsy.”

I couldn’t hide this beating from my parents. It was too obvious. They spoke to the principal, who listened to them but took no steps to make my school years better. The racism continued in my school life—in my entire life in Hungary. 

In a way, I was lucky because my parents could afford to educate me and buy me things. I always loved to follow women’s fashion. I dreamed to live in a safe environment so I could wear those beautiful high heels that I owned. I wanted to be like all the other girls, so I cut my long hair even though it was a Roma tradition to have long hair.  I also dyed my dark hair blonde so that I would look less Roma. 

From then on, my situation was a little easier, but my schoolmates continued to make me feel less, left me out of everything. When I became older, I decided that I would try to help others going through the same things I was going through, including being pushed away and hated. I would try with all my power to help others have a healthy soul and mind and stand up for their rights to get an education and work, to fit into the community and learn never to be ashamed of being a Roma. 

On that day, when I came to Canada, my gold Adidas were on my feet, but I knew that I didn’t have to run anymore.

HELENA SZENDREI is a Roma from Hungary. She immigrated to Canada in 2009. She works as a Family Support Worker at the Roma Community Centre in Toronto.

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