Pupils at Burlington Danes Academy in White City were privileged to welcome Holocaust survivor Zigi Shipper to the school in early May.
Mr Shipper, 84, who was born in Poland in 1930 and later settled in London, spoke movingly for an hour and a half about his life during the war, which included a spell at Auschwitz concentration camp.
His harrowing story began in Lodz – Poland’s third largest city – in the care of his grandparents.
“On 3 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany . Within six weeks the whole of Poland was occupied by German troops. The day they came into our city everything changed,” he said. "First of all, no Jewish child was allowed to go to school, no Jewish teacher was allowed to teach. Irrespective of whether you were teaching in a Jewish or a non-Jewish school, it wasn’t allowed. We weren’t even allowed to go on public transport. We had trams in our city. If they caught a Jewish person – they realised, especially a man, [by] the way he was dressed and had a beard – they slung him off the tram. They didn’t care whether the tram was stationary or whether the tram was moving. Everybody wished to get out.”
Mr Shipper explained how many of the Jewish population fled to the surrounding towns and villages in search of safety, but others remained, sure that no harm would come to those not of fighting age. Hunger soon took over the city, as farmers began to fear bringing in food from outside. Mr Shipper and his grandparents were moved to a poor part of Lodz, which was to become Poland’s second largest ghetto – after Warsaw’s.
“After having a three-bedroom apartment, with all the facilities you had had – like a bath, a toilet and running water – my grandmother, my grandfather and I had one solitary room. There was no bathroom, there was no toilet, there was no running water.”
“If you wanted water in the morning we had to go downstairs to pump water. Can you imagine having to pump water when it’s 20 below zero?”
Still just a child, Mr Shipper got a job in a metal factory. In 1942 Nazi officers arrived, declaring that they needed about 70,000 people from the ghetto to work in Germany.
“My grandmother said she’s going into hiding, would I go with her? I said, ‘Why do I need to go into hiding? I look about nine, ten years old, they won’t take me.’ So my grandmother left me. She went into hiding in the morning.”
During a week of raids, he was ushered into a lorry said to be headed for Germany.
“When I looked at who was in that lorry there were children, there were babies, there were old people, there were disabled people, and I said, ‘Surely they’re not going to take us to Germany to work, they’re going to take us to the nearest woods and kill us.’ And I jumped off the lorry.”
It was a decision that saved his life.
“Had they seen me they would have shot me,” he says. “There was never a question of ‘stop or I’ll shoot.’ They were shooting.”
He escaped and hid in a nearby house, going back to his grandparents’ apartment a few days later. His grandmother returned soon after.
“It was finished and we went back to work and all I can tell you: nobody heard a word from all those people they took away,” he said.
In the summer of 1944, a Russian military approach on Warsaw saw rise to plans to liquidate the ghetto. Mr Shipper explained that the Russians did not cross into the capital because of a Polish uprising.
“I suppose they thought to themselves: ‘Let the Poles and the Germans kill each other,’” he said. However, Mr Shipper and his grandmother were able to leave the ghetto on a cattle train with fellow metalworkers a few weeks later, supposedly destined for an unknown factory somewhere in Germany.
Speaking about boarding the packed train, he said: “They had a problem shutting the door. There’s no way you could sit down. Not so long ago I discussed it with my two daughters and some friends, and I said, ‘Most of my life I’ve had a problem with something which I feel terribly ashamed of.’ They asked me, ‘Why do you feel ashamed, what have you done?’ I said, ‘I’ve done nothing. But how can a 14-year-old boy hope people should die so he would have more room, so he would be able to sit down?”
“What had become of me? I was completely dehumanised. I wasn’t a human being. I was nothing.”
Following the horrific journey, during which many passengers died – their bodies dumped from the train along the way – Mr Shipper saw through a slit in the carriage a sign marked Auschwitz.
“I didn’t understand what it was,” he said. Separated from his grandmother on arrival, he was showered, undressed, shaved and issued a set of striped overalls.
Of his time at the notorious concentration camp, he said: “If I live another 1000 years I will never understand it.”
After a few months of surviving on meagre portions of bread and black coffee, and sleeping three to a bunk, he was moved to Stuthoff, a smaller camp near Danzig, where conditions were made even worse by the cold.
“The only way to keep warm was a few hundred of us huddled together,” he said, explaining that those in the middle would heat up and then move to the outside so that others could replace them.
“I’d come out one side and I’d go back in the other side. I just didn’t care about anybody. All I wanted was to live.”
He described how he once said to his friends: “This is the place I’m going to die. If it’s not from starvation it’ll be from cold.”
Life was so bad at Stuthoff that when an opportunity arose to work on a railway, Mr Shipper and 20 or so others quickly took up the offer. They were shipped back and forth between camps for the next few months, before being marched from Danzig to Gdinia, where they were loaded onto barge boats.
On May 3rd 1945, at the German naval town of Neustadt, Mr Shipper and his friends were liberated by the British Army. He spent the next three months in hospital, suffering from typhus. He was then moved to a displaced person’s camp where he was contacted by his mother.
He told his friends at the time: “For 11 years or so I thought my mother was dead. She’s not dead, she's living in London, England.”
Despite apprehensions about leaving behind his close friends, who had become like family, Mr Shipper moved to England in 1947. He married and raised a family.
“I couldn’t thank the British for what they did for me. If I lived another thousand years I couldn’t thank them enough,” he said. "I’m alive today because of them, my children are alive because of them, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren are alive because of them. When I came to this country I was allowed to do anything, as long as it was legal. And what a privileged life I have led.”
Mr Shipper now tours schools, sharing his story with today’s youngsters. The students at Burlington Danes Academy hung silently on his every word.