My grandfather survived the Holocaust – beyond horror, a lasting lesson remained from him.

When my grandfather, who had endured the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Stutthof concentration camps in previous years, arrived in England in 1947, he was met by his stepfather at the pier.

“Where’s your luggage?” was the first question he was asked, and my grandfather laughed before replying, “I have what I wear.”

That survival instinct and optimistic humor would stay with Zigi Shipper for the rest of her life, which ended this week. When I called to check in at the height of a global pandemic in 2020, I was asked, “Am I going to die a young man?”

When she had a heart attack in 1981, doctors told my grandmother it was probably the last. She calmly stated that the Nazis had been trying to kill her husband for five years, so she wasn’t too worried about it.

My 51-year-old grandfather was informed that, when it became clear that he would survive this ordeal, he could last another 15-20 years if he stopped drinking, smoking and stressful activities such as going to games in Highbury. Part of me assumed he could live forever, but he passed away on the morning of his 93rd birthday on Wednesday. The Talmud teaches that it was considered perfect to die on your birthday, so the great man’s timing was as impeccable as ever.

Zigi never attributed his survival to anything other than “pure luck” and his greatness lay in his attitude towards life after that. He believed that life is for living and he appreciated every day of these 93 years. Everyone, without exception, knew and loved him.

He would work in a restaurant room just because he wanted to talk to people as if he owned the room, and it was this quality that led to his extraordinary third act: sharing his testimony with young people in schools across the UK these past few decades. After a lifetime in the stationery business, it was this unpaid job that he rightly regarded as his true vocation.

The students listened in awe-inspiring silence as this charming and charismatic man told the story of humanity’s worst suffering, without leaving the slightest trace of bitterness. The narrative is punctuated with humor and ends with Zigi’s modus operandi – “Don’t Hate”.

The overflowing love of those who listened to his talk this week—some as long as the 1990s—is testament to the power of those conversations. Indeed, in recent years, Google has seen the words “still alive” autocomplete when Zigi Shipper is typed. It was impossible to forget the man even after a single conversation, and it’s clear that people were relieved to know he was still there long after we had the privilege of hearing his story.

Shaping minds is – very literally – changing the world, and I have no doubt that the world is a better place because it has Zigi in it. As Jews, we respond to death with the words, “Blessed be his memories,” and that word is seldom uttered with such certainty as in this case.

The power of these conversations saw the Polish boy own nothing but the clothes he was wearing, eventually getting into the rarest of spaces. He saw himself as more British than the British (“I chose to live here,” he always said) and was incredibly proud to have spoken at Westminster Abbey and addressed the England team before they set off for Euro 2012.

He met a number of prime ministers and was questioned in particular about why he still saw starving children on the news, which was what upset him the most. The response was “We are doing our best” and Zigi backfired, “Not enough.”

His legacy has hitherto been acknowledged by the chief rabbi, the prime minister, and the Prince and Princess of Wales. The second couple was given a camping tour in Stutthof in 2017, and Zigi apologized for William’s absence when he reunited with Kate Middleton in 2021. My grandfather, a stubborn flirt, sensed a clearing that the future King was not around and said: “I didn’t need your husband, you were the only one I wanted.” Zigi hasn’t been intimidated by politicians or royalty, and given what he’s been through, why should he be afraid? It was an honor for them to meet him.

He will live on in memories of those unique sentence structures (“Or we’re watching football or having dinner?) and that snappy smile and the mere mention of loving a particular chocolate bar inevitably leads to it.” provides a year’s supply the next time he sees you.

He will live on in every glass of whiskey he drinks, a good meal, a football game, and anything that makes you think that life is for enjoyment, not enduring. He will live on in the hearts and minds of students and all who pass by. First of all, he will live through his family.

Zigi was extremely proud of his two daughters, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. This family was his revenge. The last time my son saw his great-grandfather—a lot of emphasis was placed on great—he must have sensed that something was not right even at the age of six. Isaac sat in the chair with Zigi and they hugged for 45 minutes throughout the visit.

I went to see my grandfather alone that weekend and reminded him of the hug and bond between them beyond words. He managed to tell me “I have a good one”. Then at our last meeting, I asked him if he remembered Isaac’s middle name. This extraordinary man, demoted by the Nazis at Auschwitz to mere 84303, smiled before answering “Zigi.” He was right.

He was right about another thing, too. When he first returned to Auschwitz, Zigi held his two daughters in his arms, looked up at the sky and said, “Hitler failed.”

The fee for this piece is donated to the Holocaust Education Foundation

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