Interviewing a Holocaust survivor was not something I ever thought I’d do, particularly in my main role as a sports journalist. But a strong sense of my religion, culture and history meant that’s what I found myself doing for the documentary 84303 – the filmed testimony of Zigi Shipper screened for the first time this week.
I spend more time than the average person in front of a camera because of my job as a presenter on Sky Sports News. However, when I was presented with the opportunity to interview Zigi back in 2014 by his grandson Darren Richman and film director Vaughn Stein, I immediately saw it as a privilege. I could incorporate my professional skills with my commitment to keeping the subject of the Holocaust in the collective consciousness so that future generations never forget.
The experience was uniquely inspiring. Two things struck me during the process of making the film and spending time with Zigi.
First, that despite the unimaginable horrors of his youth, Zigi exudes a lust for life that many younger people would cast envious eyes upon. His warmth and unwavering belief in the inherent goodness of fellow humans was something that will be permanently etched into my mind. Zigi harbours no resentment towards the perpetrators. He believes he was lucky to survive and lives life with a positive outlook.
I met with Zigi on several occasions in the build-up to filming the documentary. Meeting at his house, we would sit with cups of tea and “nosh” he always prepared and chat for hours. Often going off on a tangent to discuss football, his experiences with the England team, his beloved grandchildren and great-grandson. Then he would start talking about his youth and time at Auschwitz. Zigi was always calm and measured as he recounted every painstaking detail. Subsequent meetings involved me asking lots of questions, delving deeper into his story, as we constructed the outline of the main elements of the account we wanted to tell.
Filming took place over a weekend last December at my old school, North London Collegiate. We sat on a stage in an empty theatre, Zigi and I opposite each other under spotlights. And we talked. When Zigi started speaking, the energy in the room was palpable. Everyone was mesmerised. You could hear a pin drop.
There was utmost respect and wonder for this man who had lived through horrific atrocities. His story is so harrowing, so fascinating, and so full of emotion: from childhood to the Lodz ghetto; from the ghetto to Auschwitz; from Auschwitz to a death march and, finally, the liberation. Unimaginable.
Despite being the target of the most visceral institutionalised hatred – perhaps because of it – Zigi has one simple message: do not hate. Three words that resonate all the more powerfully when spoken by somebody who went through what he did.
The second thing that struck me was the importance of the project we had embarked on. Our aim for this film was to protect the testimony of survivors. Zigi and others are the voice of history, so it was important to ensure those who had their lives taken can still have their stories heard. Hearing Zigi speak, and capturing his story on camera, emphasised just how essential this work is.
It is an overwhelmingly dark episode in human history. While speaking to Zigi, I realised six million is too big a number to properly mentally digest. However, if you think of the six million as one individual – with the usual ups, downs, twists and turns of life – six million times over, then it starts to look a little different.
This is what I learned talking to Zigi: the importance of people hearing about the individual experiences of those who lived through a uniquely traumatic episode of our past.
It is wonderful that the Holocaust Educational Trust helps survivors share their testimony with more than 100,000 students a year through its outreach programme.
Making this film was a way for the whole crew to do our bit to ensure that people now and in the future can hear Zigi’s story and understand how important it is that we remember.
Remembrance, after all, should be active. It requires us not just to learn but also to share what we have learned. I learned about Zigi Shipper and his story. I hope this film will help share it.