Having studied English from primary school through to university, I noticed one assignment recur time and again. From GCSE to A Level, kindergarten to BA, I was repeatedly asked to write about the person I admire most. Over the years I was tempted to pen a tribute to heroes as diverse as Eric Cantona, Winston Churchill or Mel Brooks but I always ended up musing on the same man. The only person I possibly could choose given the nature of the assignment. A survivor in every sense of the word. My grandfather. Zigi.
It is a cliché to describe anybody as requiring no introduction but, in the case of Zigmund Shipper, it happens to be true. Nobody that has so much as shared a train carriage with the man would consider him a stranger. In an age of iPods and smart phones, Zigi is a man out of time. He engages his fellow passengers in that most outdated of pastimes; conversation. As a man so self-conscious I rehearse stating my order in my head before the waiter appears at a restaurant, I have always been in awe of my grandfather's confidence. A warm, engaging man, Zigi will flirt with a beautiful woman in the street as instinctively as I might flee. Some say the art of conversation is dead but I say it's alive, well and residing in my mother's father. Embarrassment is not part of his vocabulary. And, given what he's been through, why would it be?
During my formative years we knew little about Zigi's own. Suffice to say my mother informed us that he had been in a concentration camp during his youth. We also knew this was the one topic he did not care to discuss. The dark spectre of history the elephant in the room. Like Basil Fawlty but with a greater degree of success, we were not to mention the war. But then, much to our surprise, he did.
Martin Gilbert was putting together a book entitled The Boys in which he intended to collate as many testimonies of British holocaust survivors as possible. Zigi was reticent at first. The very mention of the topic had reduced him to tears for half a century. But my mother and her sister are very insistent women. They wanted to know what their father had been through. Eventually he reneged. The three of them sat in a room and he told his story. It would not be the last time.
It is impossible for me to do justice to the enormity of the tragedy in these pages. Countless words have been written on the topic and yet still one cannot begin to compute the sheer extent of the bloodshed. It would, however, be remiss of me to write about my grandfather without reference to the place Primo Levi described as 'hell on earth' without any sense of hyperbole. Theodor W. Adorno went as far as to claim there could be 'no poetry after Auschwitz' and hearing Zigi talk about his time there it is not difficult to see why. At an age when I was celebrating my bar mitzvah in the most famous of London hotels, my grandfather was witnessing the murder of his friends and family. He saw men sentenced to be hanged kick away their buckets in a bid to deny their captors the satisfaction. He admits to a horrific feeling of relief on the train when a fellow passenger could last no longer, a little more room meant a greater chance of survival. Survival was all. When you have been robbed of your humanity, it is not possible to be humane. Little wonder he chose not to speak about the issue. Nothing is forgotten. There are some wounds time cannot heal.
The Boys opened the floodgates. Zigi began to talk about his experiences, not just in private but in public. Schools, universities, prisons, he has visited them all and told his story. Even more remarkably, at more than eighty years of age, he speaks for over an hour without so much as a sheet of paper in front of him. And this from a man that cannot describe a football game without at least a dozen 'what's-his-names'. But when Zigi is telling his story, regardless of the nature of the room, you can hear a pin drop. For evidence, simply investigate the Facebook group established in his honour. The internet, a forum ordinarily concerned only with abusing, belittling and bemoaning has made a rare exception. Reams of positive comments from students he's enlightened fill page upon page. Typical remarks include, 'What an absolute hero', 'I don't think I will ever meet a more genuine, inspiring person' and 'I wish he was my grandpa.' Fortunately for me, he is.
What of the man's adult life? My grandfather suffered a heart attack at the age of fifty. The doctors declared him dead. Clearly they didn't know him. He was instructed to cut down on cigarettes, alcohol and football. As anyone who's had the dubious pleasure of Zigi's company whilst Emile Heskey is playing will attest, two out of three ain't bad. The man that saw the Busby Babes win 5-4 at Highbury in their final English league game was unlikely to give up on the beautiful game without a fight.
And work? Fifty years of Vogue Printers, a stationery life far from stationary. His shop off Oxford Street lasted half a lifetime and has already changed hands half a dozen times since his departure from the West End a few brief years ago. And still he works. A survivor to the end.
Occasionally we will mock Zigi for his propensity to praise his grandchildren regardless of their achievement or his inability to do anything but compliment the cooking of his daughters. But if the worst of his flaws is a tremendous pride in his family then I suspect the joke is probably on us.
I hope that Grandpa Zigi won't mind my mentioning that he feels a certain degree of embarrassment over his lack of education. But, in Ralph Waldo Emerson's immortal words, 'character is higher than intellect.' Love, forgiveness, compassion. These things are far more important than diplomas and certificates. Zigi understands something far more important than anything else, people.
I appreciate there is a certain irony in the fact that I have praised my grandfather's understanding of things more valuable than mere books yet opened this piece with reference to my university education and proceeded to quote Levi, Adorno and Emerson. But then, I'm not half the person Zigi is.
Very few people are.
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