A Holocaust survivor who has spent his retirement sharing harrowing wartime experiences with British schoolchildren is to feature in a “time capsule” documentary designed to ensure the horrors of Auschwitz are never forgotten.
Zigi Shipper, 86, said he has agreed to take part in the film so the first-hand accounts of the atrocities which resulted in the genocide of millions of Jewish men, women and children at the hands of the Hitler regime remain long after he – and the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors – are around to tell them personally.
The Polish-born former shop worker, who lives in Bushey in Hertfordshire, regularly tours the UK to speak to young people as part of his work with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).
And he has now joined his film-maker grandson Darren Richman, 31, to produce a vivid testimony of his childhood in the ghetto, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and the emotional liberation that will live with Mr Shipper for the rest of his days.
He said: “It is important for me to speak to pupils. Who is going to speak for the people who did not survive?
“I want young people to know what racism and prejudice can do to people, and of course hatred.
“After all, one of them might be prime minister one day.”
Mr Shipper’s passage to England began when he was left to live with his grandparents shortly before war broke out in 1939 upon the divorce of his parents.
As Poland came under attack, the young Zigi’s father fled to the Soviet Union in the belief that women and children would be spared. The boy never found out what happened to his father, and never saw him again.
Placed in a ghetto as a 10-year-old, Mr Shipper said mothers who had lost their children to disease and starvation were killing themselves, while others were taking desperate measures to survive.
He said: “I used to get soup – it was like water with a few vegetables. If the chap liked you, or he might have dug a bit deeper, there was a piece of horse meat as well.
“Everybody says to me when I speak with them: ‘How could you eat it?’ I say: ‘Well, you would’ve eaten dogs and cats as well.’ When you’re hungry, you eat anything.”
Such was their desperation for food that, arriving at Auschwitz Birkenau in the summer of 1944, the teenage Zigi thought his days of hunger might be over. It was tragic naivety.
He recalled: “We knew absolutely nothing about what was going on there. We saw big chimneys, we thought they had their own bakeries.
“But within a day we knew.”
Zigi survived the war and eventually found his way to England after he received a letter while recovering from typhus in hospital from a woman claiming to be his mother – identifying a burn mark on his left wrist to prove she was his long-lost mother.
Recalling vividly the memories of seven decades previously, Mr Shipper said: “You become completely dehumanised when you’re starving.
“I was stepping over dead bodies in the ghetto as a youngster – it didn’t mean a thing. All we were thinking was ‘When can we get that drop of soup?’
“I did things that I’m ashamed of today. Can you imagine a child stealing a piece of bread from his mother or father? It is unbelievable what hunger does to you.”
The film, named 84303 after the number the teenage Zigi was known as by his captors, will be premiered in London on Tuesday.
Film-maker Mr Richman said: “Something that is clearly an issue is what is going to happen in five, 10 years when there won’t be many people left to tell these stories?
“My aim was to get, on film, Zigi telling his story, and get as close as it could be to being in the room with him.
“We want it to be shown in schools, in short film festivals and competitions, of Zigi telling his story in his own words – to capture it, like a time capsule.”
Karen Pollock, HET chief executive, said: “Survivors like Zigi tirelessly share their testimony in schools across the UK out of sheer determination to speak to as many people as possible whilst they still can.
“This moving and powerful film is a way to ensure that Zigi’s story, told in his own words, will live on for generations to come.”
For more information, visit het.org.uk