I was 10 years old when my whole life changed. I was living with my grandparents and the Nazis forced all of us into the Łódź Ghetto. My grandfather died of starvation soon after – he was very religious and refused to eat the non-Kosher food. My grandmother and I were alone. I no longer went to school, I worked in a factory. My childhood was over.
Two years after we arrived in the Ghetto, there was a round-up and I was put on a lorry to be deported. Looking around, I saw that I was surrounded by children, elderly and disabled people and I knew that I had to get off the lorry. By some miracle, the guards in the yard weren’t looking and I managed to jump off.
I stayed working in the Ghetto’s metal factory until one day we were all put on cattle trucks and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I can’t explain the sights, smells and sounds of that place. To this day, I will never understand how the commandants could do such horrible things and go home and have dinner with their families in the evening. From Auschwitz-Birkenau I was sent to Stutthof concentration camp, and then a forced march to Neustadt in Germany. I was liberated by British troops and immediately my friends and I set about looking for food after so many years of hunger.
I left school at the age of 10, but now at the age of 86 I go into schools with the Holocaust Educational Trust to teach young people. I tell my story, the story of a Holocaust survivor, up and down the country. I am so impressed by the way these young people listen intently, and ask so many questions. They are interested, they want to know more. There is a lot of bad press about young people now, but I have spent the last 25 years speaking to children, and I think we need to hear more about their potential.
One thing that these students often ask is whether I hate the Germans. I am always confused by this question. How could I hate someone for something their grandparent or great-grandparent did? But I think the young people I speak to leave my talk understanding something even bigger – I don’t hate anyone. And they take this message home with them. I get letters every week from students who have gone away and learned more after my talk, or from young people who have spoken to their parents differently because hearing me speak about growing up alone made them realise how precious their lives were.
At the age of 10, my life was taken from me. My father had run away in 1939 to escape the Nazis, I never learnt what happened to him. My grandfather died of starvation. My grandmother died in Theresienstadt concentration camp the day it was liberated. From the day we entered the ghetto she never knew one single day as a free woman.
But despite all of this, by some miracle I survived. I came to the UK in 1947 and was reunited with my mother, who had spent the war here. Soon after, I was reunited with a group of other child survivors I knew from the camps – we call ourselves ‘the Boys’ to this day. And they are like my family. And I had my own family – a beautiful wife, two children, 6 grandchildren and even a great grandchild. Hitler didn’t win. But if I spend the rest of my life hating, I won’t win either. I survived, and I will keep telling my story as long as I can, to make sure that young people always know what happened to us. We must never give up, and we must never stop teaching young people about the dangers of hatred.
Zigi Shipper speak in schools through the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Outreach Programme. To find out more, visit www.het.org.uk
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