Never Shall We Forget: The Holocaust Sixty Nine Years On

“For a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak, or a powerful one too […]

“For a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak, or a powerful one too powerful” – 
Primo Levi

Today marks the liberation of the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, calling the entire worlds’ idea of man and humanity into question.

And yet, it’s only since 2001 that this monumental event has become an international day of commemoration for all of those who endured or perished during the Holocaust, formally known as Holocaust Memorial Day. Since then, huge efforts have been put into not only gaining recognition for the millions of people who died, but also into creating awareness and education about the Holocaust. 2014 marks the sixty-ninth anniversary of the liberation, and this year’s theme is journeys: Ziggi Shipper’s story is an example of one man’s amazing journey not only during the Holocaust but his life since.

Born in Poland, Ziggi Shipper was just nine when WW2 broke out. Before the war, he had enjoyed a rather comfortable lifestyle with his father and grandparents, who were orthodox Jews, in an apartment situated in Lodz. Ziggi attended a Jewish school where he learnt Hebrew, Polish and Maths. However, after 1939 Ziggi’s life changed dramatically and would never be the same for him or millions of other Jews.  Shortly after the war broke out, Ziggi’s father fled Lodz and, despite attempts to return, was unheard of shortly after.  All Jewish people were then forced to leave their homes and live in a designated area of Lodz called Baluty which became the Lodz ghetto. This was a massive culture shock to both Ziggi and his grandparents who had led a relatively luxurious lifestyle in a large, spacious apartment and were now living in one single room without even a bathroom; for Ziggi, that was “when real hardship began”. At just ten years old, Ziggi found himself trapped inside the ghetto, living in appalling and unsanitary conditions among approximately 150,000 other people packed like sardines into the ghetto and forced to work. Inside the ghettos, diseases spread easily and food was extremely scarce which led to the unfortunate demise of his grandfather who as an Orthodox Jew was extremely limited to what he could eat and died as a consequence. However in 1941 the German “resettlement” program began and the Jewish Committees within the ghetto were asked to supply thousands of Jews per day. This operation was carried out swiftly with lorries rounding up men, women and children every day; when Ziggi found himself on one of these transports he managed to jump off and return to the ghetto and his grandmother. Ziggi resumed life within the ghetto and returned to work; here he remained until 1944 when, in the wake of defeat, the Nazi’s decided to liquidate all remaining ghettos.

At this point, Ziggi was told he was to be transferred, and was herded into cattle trucks at the train station along with all those working at the metal factory with him. Here Ziggi faced a huge ordeal in the overcrowded cattle truck, struggling to even survive his journey. Passengers struggled for air and were given no food or water, having to survive on what they had brought with them. After a long and distressing journey Ziggi finally arrived at his destination: Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Ziggi’s first memory of Auschwitz-Birkenau was

The sky was hazy and there was a terrible smell. From a distance we saw chimneys with smoke coming out. At that time we didn’t realise what it was. But rumours started spreading that it was a crematorium. I still didn’t know what that meant.

As they lined up for selection, something incredible happened; Ziggi’s transport from Lodz was on a named list as they were to work in a factory within the camp and left Auschwitz-Birkenau and taken to the workers camp. Once they reached the camp they were shaved, disinfected, given a communal shower and were handed their striped uniforms after all their possessions were taken away. Ziggi and the other workers stayed at this camp in Auschwitz for a few weeks, where they did no work until an order came for the whole transport to be moved to another camp.

This time Ziggi arrived at a camp in Stuthoff, near Danzig and was much smaller. Here Ziggi’s transport still did no work but were forced to stand outside in the freezing November conditions. Ziggi struggled to maintain any hope in these conditions so much so that when some Nazi officers came looking for twenty boys to work in the labour camp, Ziggi volunteered to go. He was then taken to Stolp in Pomerania where he worked and lived in the railway yard. Conditions here were much better and the railway also posed the opportunity to steal some food., but he also witnessed many horrors. Ziggi remained in Stolp until March 1945, when he was then transferred back to Stuthorff and confronted with a chaotic scene of Russian planes and bombs.

Weeks later he was then transferred once again; this time, a camp called Burschgrabben, which was so close to the Russian front that Ziggi says they could hear the music from the Russian camp. Shortly after, the German SS officers then took them to Danzig where they forced them to march. This was known as a death march, which intended to either kill the prisoners or weaken them as much as possible in an attempt to keep them away from allied forces. Ziggi was forced to march to Gdinia where he and the other prisoners were put on barges. During this time Ziggi had contracted typhus.  The prisoners were on the barges for about ten days with no food or water until they finally arrived to land where they were then marched 15km to the nearest town of Neustadt. Shortly afterwards British planes began bombing the town and soon Ziggi could see no Nazi officers instead he was surrounded by British Tanks and on the 3rd of March 1945 Ziggi was liberated by the British Army.

After his liberation, Ziggi found the transition to society extremely hard. Although he was reunited with his mother who he had thought to be dead, he had lost everything and everyone that he loved. He moved to England to join his mother which proved to be another difficult period of Ziggi’s life as despite learning English he found it hard to make friends and felt very lonely. That was until he attended a youth club in London where he able to meet other survivors like himself. He met his wife Jeannette not long after; they went on to have two daughters and now have six grandchildren and a great grandchild.

The most remarkable thing about Ziggi and his amazing story of hope and survival is that even after everything that happened to him, his main message to the world has been not to hate. His message is not only inspiring but is also pertinent to today’s society in a world that can appear so full of hate. Ziggi teaches us how hate can only lead to misery and destruction; after all it is hate in the first place that created the cataclysmic event that was the Holocaust, therefore to hate is in vain. Ziggi also stresses the importance of education of the Holocaust and is keen to make young people aware of what happened and how it happened.

The University’s Parkes Institute, one of the leading research institutes on the Holocaust studies, is hosting an event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day – check it out here.