Auschwitz survivors mark the 75th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation
- Credit: Archant
Frank Bright and Zigi Shipper both passed through the gates of the notorious death camp in 1944. The 90-year-olds were among the congregation at Belsize Square Synagogue to share their testimony and remember those who perished
Frank Bright and Zigi Shipper are having the gentlest of arguments.
For Zigi, the notorious death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau stands as the pinnacle of Nazi atrocity.
Frank however fears that as the world focuses on a single location, they overlook the millions more who died at the hands of the Third Reich.
Both men are among a dwindling number of eyewitnesses to the horrors of the gas chambers and brutal life or death selection process at the site in Poland.
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Tellingly neither spent long in Auschwitz, as teenagers they were deemed fit to work as slave labourers in factories.
Both 90, they met for the first time at the Association of Jewish Refugees' Holocaust Memorial Day service at Belsize Square Synagogue last Thursday.
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Marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, attendees included representatives from the German, Austrian and Israeli embassies as well as the relatives of survivors at a service of candle lighting and remembrance.
Frank had just turned 16 when he arrived in Auschwitz in October 1944. He was transported from the Czech ghetto of Theresienstadt with his mother two weeks after his father had made the same journey.
On the selection ramp, they parted for the final time, his mother stepped out of her queue, shook his hand and turned to the left.
He went to follow her, before being directed right. Of 1,500 on their transport, only 78 survived.
For him Auschwitz was "hell on earth".
"Later that night I saw a rectangular, rather squat chimney belch fire and smoke. I saw the next flame and wondered whether it had just consumed my mother. Then a curtain came down on my mind. It was self-preservation."
Polish-born Ziggy spent six weeks in Birkenau in summer 1944 before being moved on to forced labour camps.
He had been transported from Lodz ghetto where he lived with his grandparents for four years.
Reeling off his camp number "843003 I can't get rid of that number" he says his transport of workers avoided the ramp but he saw other trains arrive.
"A thousand people would get off, mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters had to go to a selection, pointed left, right, women holding children were told them to put they babies down and go but can you imagine a mother doing it? She wouldn't and they tried to rip the babies out of their arms.
I saw big chimneys with smoke coming out, I thought they were bakeries, I suppose the adults knew."
For the past 30 years the Bushey resident has been committed to giving school talks via the Holocaust Education Trust.
"It's so important especially for young students to know what happened between 1939 and 1945 in Europe," he says.
"The youngsters are the future, the most important people in the world. I say 'after you hear me speak, tell people what you heard - go to Auschwitz Birkenau, there is no camp anywhere like that camp, I will keep going until I can, even if I have to sit in a wheelchair."
Born in Berlin, now living in Suffolk. Frank produces a school photo taken in Prague in May 1942.
The students all wear the yellow star of David and Frank has painstakingly traced what happened to them; of the 49, only six survived, including him.
"Until I retired I had to repress it," he says. "I was working, studying getting married, I was far too busy to think about the past."
But after retirement he started to "dig out" his traumatic early experiences.
"The mind is quite flexible, you have to live with it you can't get away from it, but you don't live it all the time.
Whole families were wiped out, the world was turned upside down. I miss my mother, my father.
"I am not terribly keen on Auschwitz because if six million Jews were killed and Auschwitz accounts for one million, what happened to the rest? They aren't even mentioned? It's the dead who matter not the survivors."
"We seem to concentrate on the fate of individuals who are not representative of the millions who are dead, but they can only interview the few of us who are alive."
Zigi who came to England after the war to live with the mother who had walked out when he was three, says he has drawn huge strength from the "family" of fellow teenage refugees who shared his experiences.
"I was in five different camps and one ghetto, I wish I could tell you how we survived, not because we were stronger, we were just youngsters who worked in a metal factory," he says.
"I don't feel guilty about surviving, maybe I was kept alive to tell the tale."
Despite their differences, they both agree that the world hasn't learned the lesson from the Holocaust.
"I know perfectly well with what's going on in the world today that anti Semitism is on the rise,"says Frank.
"Unfortunately we have not learned I wish we had," adds the irrepressible Zigi.
"What I do is take people to Auschwitz-Birkenau because we must not forget, maybe that's what keeps us going.
"What else should I do sit at home and do nothing?"
AJR Chief Executive Michael Newman said, "As we mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz we Stand Together in memory of those who perished and to combat antisemitism and to support learning and teaching about the Holocaust."
In honour of the 75th anniversaries of liberation, The AJR Refugee Voices Testimony Archive has created a dedicated site for concentration camp survivors. To view it go to ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk/camp-survivors