Ziggy Shipper was the most inspirational man I have ever met, and hearing him speak today was truly an honour. Holocaust survivors are increasingly becoming fewer and farther between, as time goes by their stories of hope and of courage go with them, and of course, millions of stories were never told. Today my history class was told, in no uncertain terms, how prejudice and racism can escalate, the destructive power of hate and the importance of never giving up. Throughout, Mr Shipper's reasons for talking to us were made clear; he explained to us how it was not a case of 'how can you remember it?' and more of a case of 'how can you forget?'.
His story began in a Polish city whose Jewish population before the war was on a par with the UK's in its entirety (around 260,000) and from a relatively prosperous, Orthodox Jewish family, where he was brought up by his grandparents. He was nine and a half years old and still in bed the last time he saw his father, before he escaped the country. It was presumed that fit, healthy men would be the first to suffer in the upcoming Nazi invasion and although he returned in 1941 he was never again heard of. However, his father was wrong. It was the helpless: the young, the elderly, the ill. They were the first to suffer.
'The day they came to our city, everything changed' and with his ban from school and public transport the changes were massive. Imagine that, children banned from school and pushed out of moving trams, simply due to their religion? New decrees were passed every day, until eventually they had to move to the poorest area of town. Despite 100,000 running away to try and find safety somewhere else, the area could only comfortably fit around 20,00, not the 150,000 expected to fit. So, it was in one room with no anemities that Mr Shipper and his grandparents watched as the ghetto became completely surrounded barbed wire, and it was when he was ten and a half that he got his first job in a metal factory; working shifts from seven in the morning until seven at night. In the ghetto he faced horrendous things: from stepping over dead bodies to get to work in the morning, to a food ration so measly it would have run out by Wednesday. His Grandfather died soon after entering the ghetto through starvation as he insisted on eating only orthodox friendly food, showing the further evil of the Nazis.
August 1944: the ghetto was liquidated following the closeness of the Russian troops and he was sent to be a worker in Germany. When he reached the platform he couldn't see a train, his Grandmother pointed to the cattle truck in front of them and it was on that he witnessed many deaths due to suffocation and starvation. It was upon his arrival at Auschwitz however that the suffering reached a whole new level and some of the most heartbreaking things were said. He described watching women told to leave their babies and watching them get shot if they didn't. Babies, getting shot. Such brutality was so extreme, so impossible to comprehend. I mean, he's in his eighties and still can't fully comprehend the horrendous acts that took place.
Labelled as '84303' he lost even his name and volunteering to become a laborer in Germany was his only chance of survival, however slight. Here he defied the odds completely, through surviving Typhus without medication, food or water for seven days. Yet despite the cruelty, he told us the beautiful tale of his friends who turned down the prospect of freedom from Danish POWs during the night to stay with him and ensure that he survived too. He survived a ten mile death march due to their invaluable assistance, considering he was suffering from an often fatal disease at the time this is a truly magnificent feat. Finally, he was liberated by British troops on 3rd May 1945 and was treated in hospital for his illness for three months. After choosing to go to Palestine to start a new life with his friends he received a letter from London from what turned out to be his long estranged mother and after much deliberation he began a new life in London in December 1946.
What makes Ziggy incredible is how ordinary and easy going he is. He's without a doubt a total hero, but his ability to fully engage a group of seventeen year olds for nearly two hours seemed almost effortless. He also has regrets like everybody else, except his are heartbreaking. His grandmother sadly died the day her camp got liberated, and he explained how he wished he could have put his arm around her that day and thank her for bringing him up. And of course, he experienced first hand events which heartlessly slaughtered not just millions of Jews, but also 50 percent of the European gypsy population, a million Poles and 900 German priests.
What inspired me the most about today was how he encouraged us not to hate. He told us what hatred can lead to in a way that no history book or amount of quotations could. Someone who can watch his Grandfather starve to death as he refused to give up his Orthodox beliefs and still say that there are 'still good people in this world' is a total hero in my eyes. Someone who can be so humble as to say that it is not his place to forgive the Germans, as that is something for God and the dead to do was totally inspiring. He also said it was our responsibility to pass on what we heard and learnt today,. This is why this is so long, I apologise for that, but I really hope you have taken some inspiration from his story. All I can do is apologise because I know my words can not do his tale justice.
But, what I would like to pass on are two lessons that I took away today, and I truly hope that I can take these with me for the rest of my life. They came from someone who experienced the most extreme hate and hopelessness yet has still upheld them, thus I sincerely hope I can also apply these to my own life:
"I beg of you, do not hate, it will ruin your life" and
"Whatever you do, never give up"