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At the foot of a pine tree, Grzegorz Kwiatkowski bent to touch the black, moist shapes nestling amid the fungi and leaf mulch. “I’ve been monitoring this area now since 2015, and always hope I won’t stumble upon anything any more and that one day the entire area will have been cleared,” he said. This, however, was not that day.

The 39-year-old poet, scholar and rock musician was walking in the forest just metres from the perimeter fence of what was once the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp in the German-annexed territory of Poland, and is now a memorial site in Sztutowo, a village 24 miles (38km) east of Gdańsk on the Baltic coast.

What he was looking for – and what, over the course of two hours in mid-March, he found – are shoes: hundreds of soles, large and broad, small and narrow, bordered with cobblers’ tack holes; soft, thin fragments of leather upper parts, their decorative perforations and colours clearly visible, the odd metal buckle or eyelet occasionally revealed. Two tiny intact soles momentarily took Kwiatkowski’s breath away.

Every time he came here, he said, he was struck “by the softness of the ground, by the entire surface littered with strange mounds and elevations. You feel that you’re not walking on compacted earth but on hundreds of thousands of shoes.”

Stutthof, which was built by the Nazi regime to persecute Polish political prisoners and later became an integral part of the machinery to exterminate European Jews, eventually assumed a role as leather repair collection point for all of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. The shoes transported there – mostly from Auschwitz, after their wearers had been sent to their deaths – were recycled into leather goods such as belts, rucksacks and holsters.

In May 1945 it was liberated by Soviet forces. In their detailed protocol, a Red Army investigating officer recalled what he and his soldiers found on the camp’s premises: “A huge cone-like pile of shoes … lying there for a long time … tightly compressed … female, male and children’s shoes of different sizes and measurements.” They estimated the quantity to be 460 cubic metres, calculating, in total, “no less than 410,000 pairs of shoes”. Other similar piles were also recorded, so that in all an estimated 490 tonnes were discovered.

In a museum established on the memorial site in 1962, a large glass casket in the former camp canteen houses several thousand pairs of shoes. The rest were discarded in the forest under communist rule and, as museum directors from then on have said, were “left to nature”.

Since stumbling across many of them nine years ago while making a film about a Polish resistance fighter, Kwiatkowski has campaigned for their rescue and respectful safekeeping.

He has a personal connection to Stutthof: his grandfather and great-aunt were incarcerated there, enduring the trauma for the rest of their lives. His grandfather would take him there as a child and weep. Kwiatkowski recalled his own shock on seeing the huge mound of shoes in the museum, and subsequent stupefaction upon discovering, decades later, that these were just a fraction of the total.

The guitarist and vocalist of the Gdańsk-based psychedelic rock band Trupa Trupa, Kwiatkowski said his pursuit of the shoes of Holocaust victims “found scattered around the forest rotting like death” had become one of the most important of his life.

But it has been slow and faltering, and on repeated return visits he has been increasingly disheartened to find ever more shoes emerging from the earth.

“Of course they should have been fenced off, first and foremost, right from the start,” he said. “But that not being the case, they should now be dug out, and not only preserved and put on display, but thoroughly examined by experts to find out who owned them, where did they come from, where they were made, in honour and commemoration of the victims. They should be the pride of the museum authorities.”

Support for the campaign to salvage and preserve the shoes has come from families of those who endured Stutthof.

Sanford Jacoby, distinguished research professor of economic history at University of California, Los Angeles, whose uncle Hugo Kanter was a slave labourer at Stutthof, said: “While people tend to forget the endless text displayed in museums, they would never forget these shoes, if only they could see them, the entire pile of them. What better education could there be?”

For Kanter, he added, Stutthof “was a horrific place”: “The gruesome memories of his incarceration were for ever embedded in his psyche.”

People in Sztutowo say they have been repeatedly, inadvertently, unearthing the shoes for decades.

Several in particular recall a scout camp in the 1960s. “It was impossible to secure the tent pegs and stakes in the ground, because as we discovered, the entire hill beneath a thin layer of earth was a mound of shoes,” Jerzy, one of the scouts remembered. “It shook us. We knew where we were … and could only guess that someone had once worn them and had died during the war.”

The shoes, said Kwiatkowski, are of particular resonance in an age of increasing Holocaust denial: “The past is not the past, it’s the present. Ignoring the artefacts of genocide is a scandal and this scandal radiates.”

Their handling to date has been “inextricably linked to the way in which Poland remembers its own past”, he said. While acknowledging the suffering of millions of Poles under the yokes of Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union, Kwiatkowksi said there was “no excuse for not dealing with the whole truth”.

Under the previous government, led by the rightwing populist, national conservative Law and Justice party, “there has been little room for anything other than the characterisation of Poles as victims, and certainly a neglect of Jewish memory”, he added. “But it’s neither healthy nor correct to see yourself as just a victim.

“In this climate it has seemed easier to literally brush the shoes under the carpet, than to deal with the painful reality of them.”

Kwiatkowski hoped that under Poland’s new liberal government led by Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, a more rigorous and honest approach towards tackling the shoes and their history would take place than was possible under its revisionist predecessor.

“It’s an evolutionary process and the country is still divided, but the fact that people turned their backs on nationalism and the attendant rewriting of history is a huge relief,” he said.

Piotr Rypson, the recently appointed head of the department of cultural heritage with responsibility for all museums in Poland, said in an email his department was aware of the shoes found close to the site and had asked Stutthof’s directors “to provide solutions”. But as the area around the museum was owned by the state forests department, its permission was needed first, he said.

“We asked the museum to investigate the history of how these artefacts made their way to Stutthof … to contact the relevant authorities to create an action plan in the area outside of the museum perimeter [and to] propose solutions of what to do with these artefacts, which are in a state of partial disintegration,” he wrote.

Łukasz Kępski, a spokesperson for Stutthof, said that while he himself had come across 3-4kg of shoes on a recent excursion with a local TV journalist, it had been necessary to go deep into the forest to find them, and to dig extensively below ground. He did not expect more finds, except for those that wild boar or badgers may root out. The museum, he said, was not responsible for any shoes found, “as the land is outside our jurisdiction”.

Kępski and the museum’s archivist, Danuta Drywa, an authority on Jewish prisoners at Stutthof, expressed concern about creating an “eBay demand” for Holocaust artefacts. “There are already enough trophy hunters of World War II memorabilia here,” Kępski said, suggesting that their rummaging for guns and other objects could even be the reason for the shoes having re-emerged.

On a recent visit, he led the Guardian to the huge concrete monument to the estimated 65,000 victims of Stutthof who were murdered – 28,000 of whom were Jews – which contains human ashes viewable through a horizontal window. He pointed to a small door cut into the concrete at the back and sealed with a green lock, to show where he said the shoes found in recent years had been put for safekeeping.

Asked about the shoes found close to the site, Kępski confirmed that plans to put them “behind glass, to give them their rightful place” were due to be finalised by the end of this year.

The plans included erecting signposts in the forest advising people who may find further shoes to contact the authorities, he said. “Not that we expect many more to be found,” he added.

Just minutes later, less than eight walking paces from the museum’s fence, Kwiatkowski’s blackened hands were uncovering more remnants from the marshy soil.

Kate Connolly,