OPINION: My grandfather Zigi Shipper – a lifetime defying the odds and surviving

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OPINION: My grandfather Zigi Shipper – a lifetime defying the odds and surviving

There he was, "staring down the lens and into the future," writes Darren Richman, of the incredible moment he recognised the image of his beloved grandfather at a Lodz Ghetto monument

Lodz Ghetto memorial photograph, showing Zigi Shipper, foreground, touching his hand to his face. Pic: Darren Richman
Lodz Ghetto memorial photograph, showing Zigi Shipper, foreground, touching his hand to his face. Pic: Darren Richman

The first and last time I visited the Wailing Wall was in 2001. It was the summer after my GCSEs and, like countless teenagers before and since, we were “on tour”, a misleadingly grandiose term that evokes the hedonism of The Rolling Stones rather than the reality of travelling round Israel consuming nothing but dire chicken schnitzel and lectures on Zionism.

At the wall, various members of FZY Tour 3 (“How fit are we?” in the words of our unironic chant) approached this holiest of sites and returned to the group overwhelmed with emotion. My experience was somewhat less profound as I made my way over, felt the limestone and then thought of the 1970s West Bromwich Albion player who, in a documentary about the team’s trip to East Asia, stood outside the Great Wall of China and observed, “You’ve seen one wall, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

There is a practice of leaving prayer notes inside the wall’s crevices but I was 16 and my only real concern was Manchester United winning the league, something I felt Sir Alex Ferguson had covered without outside assistance.

Reconstruction of Radegast train station. Pic: Darren Richman

I thought of that moment at the Kotel in late August as I stood outside the apartment building in Lodz where my grandfather, Zigi Shipper, lived in the early 1930s right up to the point history had other ideas.

Once again, this was something I felt I had to do but, as I stood with my mother and took photographs of the dilapidated exterior in a part of town the incredulous taxi driver had openly baulked at the idea of driving to, I wasn’t sure quite what to feel.

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

The second and final stop on our whistlestop tour of 1930’s Poland was the Lodz ghetto, the place Zigi lived in the period between the apartment years and Auschwitz. On the outskirts of the city sits the kind of identikit memorial seen at Jewish heritage sites all over Europe that your mum insists you must visit while you’re in town.

There’s a Star of David, a monument evoking the camps, a burning flame, pertinent dates and Hebrew writing. We made our way up the deserted road in silence towards the reconstruction of Radegast train station, the location where Jews were transported from the ghetto to the extermination camps during Operation Reinhard. At this point we had no idea we were about to see a ghost.

The Lodz Ghetto building that was home to Zigi Shipper. Pic: Darren Richman

Next to the station there is a sort of miniature outdoor museum exhibit with a few blocks of text and accompanying photographs explaining what occurred in the ghetto during the years when 210,000 Jews passed through its walls. One of those Jews was Zigi and he occupied our thoughts as we made our way over to inspect the first picture, a shot of the ghetto swarming with activity. Dozens of people, yellow stars on their backs, are barely contained within the frame. And then it happened. We both clocked it at the same time. My mum, Zigi’s daughter, said “Is that-?” I replied that it was before she could finish the sentence.

There, in the foreground, one of a handful of figures actually facing the camera, was the unmistakable figure of Zigi. He is wearing a hat and anxiously touching his face, the latter a habit I have inherited. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in the ghetto and about five can be made out in the one picture on display and the focal point is very clearly my grandfather, staring down the lens and into the future. Since there was nothing left to say, my mother wept.

Anyone who met Zigi, however briefly, knows how much he loved being the centre of attention and so it seemed somehow fitting that he should dominate the crowded frame. The other thing most people he encountered realised is that there was something almost magical about the man born of a lifetime defying the odds and surviving.

Zigi Shipper, Credit: HET

There were 223,000 Jews living in Lodz before the invasion of Poland and just 10,000 survived. That should have been miraculous enough but Zigi had one last moment of magic for us.

I went to Poland not sure what to expect but hoping I would feel something and my grandfather, decades before I was born and months after his death, ensured I did.

  • Darren Richman is a writer and journalist.


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