OPINION: A year on, we remember my beloved grandfather Zigi

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OPINION: A year on, we remember my beloved grandfather Zigi

'The boy from Łódź never forgot where he came from or what he’d been through'. Darren Richman marks the first year without Holocaust survivor Zigi Shipper

Darren Richman and his grandfather Zigi Shipper. Pic: Darren Richman
Darren Richman and his grandfather Zigi Shipper. Pic: Darren Richman

Zigi Shipper, my grandfather, died exactly a year ago on his 93rd birthday. His passing was marked by the Prime Minister, the King and the Chief Rabbi.  The latter went so far as to speak at his stone setting last month and one thing we can be certain of is that Zigi would have loved all the attention. Although I suspect he could have lived without the whole dying thing.

Zigi loved life more than any other human being I’ve met despite, or perhaps because of, enduring Auschwitz. He found magic in the mundane from a prosaic bus ride to a simple dinner. Indeed, he once told me eating food with cutlery was like making love through an interpreter. When out in public, he wanted to engage and converse and, above all else, make people laugh.

He came to this country with little more than the shirt on his back and was mourned in the Commons on his final departure but status did not interest Zigi. He afforded the man on the street the same respect he showed the woman in the crown. The boy from Łódź never forgot where he came from or what he’d been through. He was passionate about feeding those in need because of the trauma of his youth. He would remind us often enough that it felt like a mantra: “I know what it is to be hungry.”

After the death of my grandmother in the summer of 2020, Zigi shifted back into endurance mode. If one saw him at a funeral in Bushey in his 90s and asked how he was, he would invariably point to the ground and say, “Well, I’m not down there yet so I can’t be doing too badly.” For my grandfather, after all he’d been through, living was enough.

The late Zigi Shipper with his granddaughter Emma Harrod. Pic: Darren Richman

The last time I saw my grandfather, he could no longer speak. Having said goodbye in every sense of the word, I bent down and embraced my hero on his deathbed.

As I went to leave, it was clear Zigi knew as well as I did that this was our final encounter and, using what little strength he had, held tightly onto my hand to keep me in the room for as long as possible. It dawned on me, in the dark of the afternoon, that he was scared. It was the first and last time I ever saw the man truly fearful.

Zigi died at home, at the age of 93, surrounded by his children. I think most of us would be happy with that, without even factoring in a lifetime involving concentration camps and heart attacks. It bothered me, therefore, that he was clearly worried and his final night was spent in a manner that suggested deep distress. Perhaps dying peacefully in your sleep is a newspaper euphemism or maybe it only applies to other people.

Credit: Adam Soller

In the year since his death, I believe I have come to understand that fear. Zigi didn’t just love life, he understood its value as well as anyone in recorded history. The American songwriter Warren Zevon, confronted with his own imminent demise, claimed he now understood how important it was to “enjoy every sandwich” and the same was true of my grandfather. He savoured every football match, every glass of whiskey, every phone call with a friend. He was the living embodiment of the Jewish toast, l’chaim. My grandfather’s entire modus operandi could be summed up in the words, “To life!” It is little wonder he fought against death to the very last.

It was recently pointed out to me that Zigi was born on the 18th, died on the 18th and, if the digits are taken individually, his Auschwitz number 84303 adds up to 18. The number 18 in Judaism, chai, means life. It is considered good luck and is probably the most significant numerical value for Jews. It was, in fact, our good fortune to have had all those years with him and, to quote the American writer and director Robert B. Weide, “For those who never knew him, I’m sorry for your loss.”

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