When my grandfather arrived in England in 1947, having endured Auschwitz-Birkenau and Stutthof concentration camps in the preceding years, he was greeted at the dock by his stepfather.
“Where is your luggage?” was the first question he was asked, and my grandfather laughed before replying: “What I’m wearing is what I have.”
That survival instinct and sanguine good humour would remain with Zigi Shipper for the rest of his life, which came to an end this week. When I called to check in at the height of a global pandemic in 2020, he brushed it off with the words, “Am I going to die a young man?”
When he had a heart attack in 1981, the doctors told my grandmother this was probably the end. She calmly pointed out that the Nazis had tried to kill her husband for five years so she wasn’t too worried about this.
When it became clear he was going to survive that ordeal, my 51-year-old grandfather was informed that if he gave up alcohol, cigarettes and stressful activities like attending games at Highbury, he might last another 15 or 20 years. Some part of me assumed he might just live forever but he passed away on Wednesday, on the morning of his 93rd birthday. The Talmud teaches that it is considered perfect to die on your birthday so the great man’s timing, as ever, was immaculate.
Zigi never attributed his survival as down to anything more than “pure luck”, and his greatness lay in his attitude to life thereafter. He believed life was for living, and cherished every day of those 93 years. Everybody knew him and, without exception, loved him.
He would work the room at a restaurant like he owned the place simply because he wanted to talk to people, and it was this quality that led to his extraordinary third act: sharing his testimony with young people at schools the length and breadth of the UK these past few decades. After a lifetime in the stationery business, this was unpaid work he rightly considered his true calling.
Those students listened in awed silence as this charming and charismatic man told his story of suffering the worst of humanity without a trace of bitterness. The narrative was punctuated with humour and concluded with Zigi’s modus operandi – “Do not hate.”
This week, the outpouring of love from those who heard him speak – some as long ago as the 1990s – is testament to the power of those talks. Indeed, in recent years, typing Zigi Shipper into Google would see it autocomplete with the words “still alive”. Even after a single meeting the man was impossible to forget, and it is clear that people took comfort in knowing he was still out there, long after they’d had the privilege of hearing his story.
Shaping minds is – in a very real sense – changing the world, and I have no doubt the world was a better place for having had Zigi in it. As Jews, we respond to death with the words, “May their memory be a blessing”, and rarely can that phrase have been uttered with such certainty as on this occasion.
The power of those talks saw the Polish boy with nothing more than the clothes he was wearing ultimately enter the most rarefied of spaces. He considered himself more English than the English (“I chose to live here”, he would invariably declare) and was incredibly proud to have spoken at Westminster Abbey and addressed the England squad before they departed for Euro 2012.
He met a number of prime ministers, and grilled one in particular about why he was still seeing starving children on the news, the thing that upset him most. “We’re doing what we can” was the response and Zigi snapped back, “It’s not enough.”
His legacy has so far been acknowledged by the chief rabbi, the prime minister and the Prince and Princess of Wales. The latter couple were given a tour of the camp at Stutthof in 2017 and, when Zigi was reunited with Kate Middleton in 2021, she apologised for William’s absence. My grandfather, the inveterate flirt, sensed an opening without the future King around and said: “I didn’t need your husband, you were the one I wanted.” Zigi was not overawed by politicians or royalty and, given what he went through, why should he be? It was an honour for them to meet him.
He will live on in the memories of those unique sentence constructions (“Or we’re watching the football or we’re eating dinner?) and that staccato laugh, and the way the mere mention of liking a particular chocolate would inevitably lead to him providing a year’s supply the next time he saw you.
He will live on in every glass of whiskey, good meal, football match and anything else that suggests life is for enjoying, not enduring. He will live on in the hearts and minds of those students, and all who crossed his path. Most of all, though, he will live on through his family.
Zigi was immensely proud of his two daughters, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. This family was his revenge. The last time my son saw his great-grandfather – emphasis very much on the great – he must have sensed, even at the age of six, that something wasn’t right. Isaac got into the chair with Zigi and they hugged for the duration of the visit, a full 45 minutes.
That weekend I went to see my grandfather alone and reminded him of the embrace and their bond beyond mere words. He just about managed to tell me, “You’ve got a good one.” Then, in our final exchange, I asked him if he remembered Isaac’s middle name. This extraordinary man, who was reduced to nothing more than the number 84303 by the Nazis at Auschwitz, smiled before responding, “Zigi”. He was right.
He was right about something else too. The first time he returned to Auschwitz, Zigi held his two daughters in his arms, looked to the sky and said, “Hitler did not succeed.”
The fee for this piece is being donated to the Holocaust Educational Trust