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‘At an age when I was celebrating my Bar Mitzvah, my grandfather was enduring a succession of concentration camps’
Darren Richman, 32, was born in the UK. His maternal grandfather, Zigi Shipper, 86, was born in Lodz, Poland.
When my grandfather was 51, he suffered a massive coronary. My grandmother was told to prepare for the worst. She told the doctor, “The Nazis tried to kill my husband for five years and he survived that; I’m not too worried about this.” On his next birthday, he’ll turn 87.
Grandpa Zigi, as he’s affectionately referred to by just about everyone, was born to Jewish parents in 1930 in Lodz, Poland. Between 1940 and 1945, at an age when I was playing with friends and celebrating my barmitzvah, he was enduring hell on earth at a succession of concentration camps. Auschwitz never felt like textbook history at school, because this genial, optimistic man, a huge part of my life, had survived it.
When I pop in to see him at his bungalow, undoubtedly the last home I’ll visit without Wi-Fi, Zigi starts chatting away immediately: “Do you know how long making a cup of tea used to take? How can people complain about things changing?”
I ask whether he ever feels envious of my generation: “Not at all. It makes me feel so great to see my children, my grandchildren, the education they had. To see the third generation doing so well makes me happier than anything. You are my revenge.”
I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the description of myself as “third generation”. I’m sometimes called not just a third-generation immigrant but a third-generation survivor. But it feels insulting to consider myself a survivor of anything. When, as a child, I was first informed that Zigi had been to a camp for Jews when he was my age, I genuinely assumed it was similar to the ones I went to with youth groups. I couldn’t compute the reality of what I was being told and, to a large degree, I still can’t.
I had enough to eat and room where to sleep – why should I complain?
Yet the man before me, who witnessed first-hand some of the most horrific events of the last century, feels he has had a great life: “I had enough to eat and room where to sleep – why should I complain?” Seventy years in the country and his English might not be perfect, but the sentiment is.
I ask what he makes of my decisions, such as the peripatetic nature of my work (writing about films and football), compared with his own half-century spent running a stationery shop. He’s sanguine: “Do whatever makes you happy. Life is too short.”
One surprising difference between us is our attitude towards Jewish dietary laws. Zigi was brought up in an extremely religious household, yet his experiences changed his attitude towards food. He loathes anyone in the family using the word “starving” to denote hunger, and will eat just about anything. Despite being agnostic at best, I avoid pig and seafood – a superstitious hangover from my younger days, and one I seem unwilling or unable to shake.
When I ask about God, he’s diplomatic: “I don’t know one way or another. But at my age, it’s probably best to keep Him on side, just in case.”
I share little of Zigi’s optimism. Discovering an absence of milk in the fridge is enough to convince me the world is about to end. In July this year, my first child was born eight weeks early and spent the first few weeks of his life in intensive care. Fortunately, our son showed some of his great-grandfather’s survival instinct and he’s home now. The Nazis tried to reduce my grandfather to no more than a number: 84303. They didn’t quite manage that, nor could they rob him of a family. Our child, his great-grandson, is named Isaac Zigi.