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My aim is to ensure no one forgets

How do different generations confront the horrors of the past?

    Defiant: Zigi Shipper visits schools across the country
    Defiant: Zigi Shipper visits schools across the country

    On Yom Hashoah, communities across the world remember the six million Jewish lives lost at the hands of Hitler's Nazi regime. Here, Zigi Shipper tells the JC why it took him more than 50 years to share his own experiences, while his daughter Michelle Richman and grandson Darren Richman explain the effect his story has had on their family.

    Zigi was 14 when he arrived at Auschwitz. Now aged 86, he recalls spending days in a cattle truck so crowded there was only room to sit down once others had died and he has struggled with the guilt at feeling relief at a chance finally to rest his legs. He recalls:

    "The first time I ever really talked about what had happened to me, I was a grown-up man in my 50s. I'd already lived.

    I didn't talk about it before because I didn't want to. I did talk about it all the time with my friends who are survivors. I was lucky in that sense because we had a big group of us. But we thought nobody else was going to believe us. Because, who would believe the things that we saw? Doctors were killing babies, the Nazis were hanging young boys just because they were Jewish. Who would believe that?

    So, I understand why people find it hard to believe all the horrible things that happened. And you have to remember most survivors were very, very frightened. We didn't want to draw attention to ourselves.

    My children knew because they were always around survivors and they picked it up from listening to us. But they only picked up bits and pieces. They might have asked one or two questions growing up but that was it.

    I would always try to joke about my experience. I would eat something new with my children and say, 'oh I wish I got to taste that when I was in the camps'. Then they would ask me: 'Dad what did you eat?' And I would tell them.

    How I survived I will never know. To me, most of the survivors, unless they are really religious, will tell you it was pure luck that saved them.

    My children weren't taught about it in schools like children are now. I only sat down with them for the first time because I was approached by the Holocaust Educational Trust and they persuaded me to write my testimony. I hadn't spoken about it with other people for 50 years. My education finished when I was nine years old, when Jewish children were not allowed to go to school, so the thought of standing in front of people to tell my story was terrifying.

    But now I visit up to three cities a week to talk to schoolchildren about my experiences and, surprisingly, I don't find it difficult. I have never had any problems since I've started talking.

    Moving: Zigi with grandson Darren
    Moving: Zigi with grandson Darren

    My other friends speak and go to pieces. But when I speak about what happened I don't want people to be miserable, I don't want kids of 14, 15, or 16 to go home crying.

    It means more to me than anything else when, after hearing me talk, children say: 'How is it that I hate this person and you don't hate anyone, not even the people who hurt you?'

    Teaching them that hatred is the worst thing in the world is what it is all about.

    I'm now a great-grandfather and ensuring that my growing family keeps my story alive is an incredibly important thing for me. I've already asked my daughters to visit schools, like me, and tell my story when I'm not around to do it.

    I've never said they have got to do it, but I want them to. There were survivors like me who died before telling their family their story. They didn't have a group of friends like I did to talk to. That is the only thing that worries me, that people will forget".

    For second generation survivor Michelle Richman, 59, hearing her father's story after years of silence had a huge impact on her life. It influenced her in many ways, from her choice of career as a counsellor, to how her family approach meal times. She says:

    "We are not an Orthodox family but our Jewish identity is at the heart of who we are; it is very important to us. It is what my father and his family were all punished for.

    I always knew my dad had been in a concentration camp. I don't know how, but it was always in the unconscious.

    How it was explained to us when we were young was that he was in a prison, but he hadn't done anything wrong. But it was not something we talked about. You just didn't.

    I would have been under 10 when I learnt that, and I never for one minute doubted that it was true, because he had so many friends who had been through the same experiences. I knew they couldn't have done anything terrible.

    The Holocaust wasn't part of our history in school and I remember the first time I knew more about it was when this mini TV series came on in 1978, called Holocaust. We all watched it as a family.

    I would have been about 22 then. I remember my dad saying that it was the nearest thing he had seen to describe anything that he had been through.

    But still he didn't tell his story. It was never ever spoken about and we didn't ask.

    It wasn't until much later that I sat down with my sister and my dad and he told us the whole story. He was 65.

    When we sat down after all those years, it was an emotional process. It was hard, really hard.

    One story that will always stick out was about him being called out one morning and seeing four blocks and knowing what was going to happen.

    Four Jewish guys were going to be hanged and the thought that, at 14, he had to see something like that is impossible to comprehend.

    The fact that dead bodies didn't mean anything to him because he was seeing them on a daily basis has always been hard to get my head around. And not talking about it has had a massive affect.

    We lived in a house where people suffered extreme trauma. You can't help but be affected by living in that environment and it manifested itself in many ways.

    Dad suffered with starvation for many years and, because of that, food, meal times and not wasting anything became a major issue in our family life after the war.

    I even think that becoming a counsellor has a lot to do with it. I feel that talking about things is very important and wanting to get people to talk about the past is important to me.

    I believe the past has a major impact on your future and on your present.

    I don't recall how I told my own three children about their grandfather's history. I didn't sit down with them and say 'there is something I need to tell you about grandpa', it was just something they knew, we just always talked about it."

    I suppose that as a family we live with the Holocaust every day for our whole life, so one day isn't any more important than another. But Yom Hashoah is a vital time to remember what happened.

    When I see him doing what he does now I feel proud and amazed at the human spirit and at what people can overcome."

    For Zigi's grandson Darren Richman, 31, his grandfather's experience during the Holocaust wasn't shrouded in secrecy like it had been for previous generations. He says:

    "I almost can't remember a time when I didn't know about my grandfather's history. It was just something we were brought up with.

    I think the strange thing is when it is a member of your family, or it is something you are brought up with, you just kind of accept it.

    Unlike my mother, I learnt about the Holocaust through school and I knew that my grandfather had been in Auschwitz and he'd survived it.

    I always felt very close to him and whenever we were learning about these things it was always something I was very interested in.

    My AS level theatre studies devised piece was set in Auschwitz. It was always very much at the forefront of my mind and, as I've got older, it has only become more so.

    Keeping his story alive is extremely important to me. I'm a journalist and a writer and have written about him a fair few times now. I'm making a film about him because I want to have a time capsule for others.

    I have seen my grandfather talk ludicrously large numbers of times. And I wanted a film to capture how captivating it is to be in a room with him and see him talk.

    Realistically, in 10 years he won't be able to do it anymore. Always the worry is when the first generation has passed away it won't ever be the same.

    My mum can tell the story and I can tell the story, but that is why I was determined to make the film; I don't want to go around telling his story because it isn't my story to tell.

    The film is him in his own words telling it and it is as close to having him in the room as it is going to get.

    No one who could sit in the room with him would forget what it was like to hear his story and that is what I wanted.

    He is the most gregarious, fun-loving person. If you had the stereotypical image of what a survivor might be, he is the opposite of that.

    When people ask him questions at the end of his talks they often ask if his wife is also a survivor.' He says: 'being married to me makes her more of a survivor than I am.'

    If we go to a restaurant with him he won't sit still, he walks around, and he has to speak to everyone.

    I have my own child on the way, I haven't thought about how I will tell them. The chances are the age when I'd be telling them about him, I have to assume that Zigi won't be here.

    Maybe he will but probably not. But I will focus on his incredible heroism and what he has done with his life afterwards.

    It is very important and he will tell you he doesn't live the Holocaust; he isn't defined by it.

    It was a terrible thing but he does something very important as a result of it.

    Outside the times of him talking about it, he doesn't think about it. He doesn't lose sleep over it, he doesn't have nightmares about it, he has just moved on.

    I will tell my children about what he went through but I'll make sure it isn't the most defining thing in their lives."

    For more information about the Holocaust Educational Trust, please visit www.het.org.uk

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