Why do people hate? This was one of the central questions asked by Holocaust survivor Zigi Shipper when he spoke to students and staff at Kingston University about his early childhood in Poland and experiences of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ during World War Two.
The talk, held on Thursday, 12th March, was arranged through the Kingston University History Society in conjunction with the Holocaust Educational Trust. It was given to a packed audience in one of the best-attended history events held at Kingston for many years. At one point there was standing room only, and one could hear a pin drop in the room.
Zigi’s powerful and very moving talk was particularly poignant for me as I had just given a lecture to my 3rd year Undergraduate History students on ‘Holocaust Denial’ and the strategies pursued by those on the extreme right today who seek to destroy the memory of Nazi crimes for ideological purposes. Direct witness testimony provided by those who survived the Holocaust remains one of the most effective barriers against the revival of extreme right ideas, but contemporary neo-Nazis remain determined to ‘break down’ or destroy such memories, or even deny the Holocaust ever took place.
As I pointed out to my students, as recently as November, 2014, for example, a section of the wrought-iron gate at the former Dachau concentration camp, bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Work Sets You Free”, was stolen. In 2009, a similar sign spanning the main gate at Auschwitz was also stolen at the behest of extreme right activists. Physical evidence of the camps remains a target for neo-Nazis today, who somehow believe that removing it will help rehabilitate the old interwar racist ideas.
This makes the oral testimony of survivors such as Zigi Shipper even more important in today’s world. Zigi’s determination to talk about his experiences to a new generation of young people is part of the powerful response that all citizens should surely adopt when faced with such acts. Keeping the memory alive is one of the most important things that both the surviving victims and professional historians can help to do to educate people about what ‘civilised’ individuals are capable of doing given certain circumstances.
Significantly, at one point, Mr. Shipper, who is now 85-years old, said he was often asked how he could still recall his memories of those horrrific times in such vivid detail. He said his response is always, ‘How could I forget?’
Zigi was introduced to his Kingston University audience by Josh Whatsize, a 2nd year Drama and International Relations student here at Kingston, who also serves as a national youth ambassador for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
Born on 18th January, 1930, to a Jewish family in Lodz, Poland, Zigi attended a Jewish school. When he was 5 years old, his parents divorced but, because his family were Orthodox Jews, Zigi was told his mother had died. Following his parents divorce, Zigi lived with his father (briefly) and with his grandparents. He had a very happy childhood.
In 1939, however, after the German invasion of Poland, and the entry of the Nazis into his home city, ‘everything changed’. No Jewish child was allowed to attend school anymore, no Jewish teachers were allowed to teach, and no Jews were allowed to travel on public transport. As with other Jews, the 9-year old Zigi was also required to wear a yellow Star of David. Zigi recalled that new anti-Jewish decrees were issued nearly every day. The worst thing for Zigi, though, was the terrible shortage of food and the constant pain of hunger.
In 1940, Zigi and his grandparents were forced to live in a ghetto. In 1944, when the ghetto was liquidated, Zigi and his grandparents were then ordered to ‘relocate’ to the east by rail, transported in cattle trucks under terrible conditions. And, upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau, people were brutally divided up (known as ‘Selektion’) into those who were to be taken to the ‘showers’ (gas chambers) for extermination, and those who were ‘fit for work’ and would carry out hard physical labour until they died (usually within just 3 months). As Zigi pointed out, many of those he arrived with at Auschwitz were dead within just one hour of arriving at the camp.
Zigi, now all alone, said he lost all sense of his own identity, and merely became prisoner number 84,303. Above all, he asked himself over and over, and still asks himself even today, ‘what kind of people could do this to other people?’ How could educated and apparently civilized German officers carry out such crimes during the day, and then go home and play with their children and listen to classical music in the evening?
Zigi saw truly horrific things in Auschwitz, experienced regular beatings and suffered extreme hunger. But he was determined to survive and, after further transportation and forced marches, he was finally liberated by the British Army. Incredibly, when he was in a ‘Displaced Persons Camp’, he discovered his mother was alive and well and living in Britain, to where Zigi moved in 1947 to build a whole new life.
It was a real privilege and honour to listen to Zigi’s life-story, and to witness his drive to keep the memories of the Holocaust fully alive for a new generation. Long may he continue in his work.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University.