Incredible life of sculptor who survived the Nazis

Paula Sapietis stands in her late husband Zigfrids' sculpture Siberian Crosses. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Paula Sapietis stands in her late husband Zigfrids' sculpture Siberian Crosses. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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BEATEN bloody by the Gestapo and facing a horrific ordeal after being shoved into a cramped holding cell in Latvia, celebrated sculptor Zigfrids Sapietis may never have believed he would reach his 18th birthday.

But the artist, who died last month at the grand age of 90, lived an extraordinary life – surviving stints in brutal Riga Central Prison, Salaspils concentration camp, and being forced to fight on the Russian front before fleeing to Denmark in a submarine.

Zigfrids Sapietis at work. Picture: contributed

Zigfrids Sapietis at work. Picture: contributed

He eventually reached Newbattle, where today the grounds of his studio are peppered with sculptures telling the tale of an exile who has lived a far from ordinary life.

One of his greatest creations is the Siberian Crosses series, which stand in his garden at nearly 10ft tall.

The powerful wooden sculptures are dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Second World War concentration camps.

The Latvian government has asked whether the sculptures could be placed outside Salaspils, where Zigfrids spent nearly a year.

Zigi – as he is known by his loved ones – was arrested by the secret police in his native Latvia in 1942 for his nationalist beliefs, beginning a four-year ordeal at the hands of the Nazis.

“It’s an incredible story of humanity against all odds,” said his wife, Paula.

“He was so grateful for his life and was always very humble.

“He kept saying at the very end: ‘Paula, it went like a dream’.”

As a 16-year-old idealist, Zigi’s ardent nationalism made him a target for the Germans who had invaded Latvia the previous year, bringing with them a chill wind of mass persecution.

After making a patriotic speech at a memorial in the Military Cemetery in May 1942, he was seized by the Gestapo and dragged to its headquarters in Reims Street where he was subjected to beatings for refusing to reveal the identity of his companions.

This was only the start of Zigi’s nightmarish ordeal, as he was taken to squalid Riga Central Prison where he was held captive for around six months.

Prison life was brutal, with the endless days marked only by rare walks outside and bites from bedbugs.

The inmates were punished often by guards, receiving beatings and lashes for crimes such as singing.

In September 1942, he was taken to the prison hospital after becoming so weak through starvation that he could barely stand and his body was infected from countless sores and bedbug bites.

From there he was transferred to a ‘cell for the dying’ where he lay amongst the dead bodies, which were not removed for days, and starving men he described as “living skeletons” who would stuff grass into their mouths to fill their empty bellies on rare trips outside.

Thankfully Zigi was returned to the hospital unit for treatment, where he began to recover and was eventually allowed to join a workers’ unit, doing menial tasks in exchange for better rations.

One day at the beginning of 1943 he was suddenly told to dress.

The inmates were not sure whether they would be freed, taken to Salaspils concentration camp or driven to the Bikernieki forest to face the firing squad.

But fortune favoured Zigi and he was taken to the camp, where life was hard but conditions were better than prison.

After pleas from his aunt he was released from the camp in April 1943 but at the price of fighting with the Latvian Legion against the Russians.

Zigi was sent to the front line, where he was wounded while operating as an artillery observer.

He was moved to a German hospital but, by a twist of fate, he was able to escape when the hospital was attacked by the Russian army in 1945.

Hobbling through a snowy field, half delirious, he was helped by a German soldier who was also fleeing the Russians.

The soldier helped Zigi on to a submarine full of Latvian refugees which took them to safety in Denmark.

When the war ended he remained in Denmark for seven years, where he worked as a decorator of porcelain and studied art at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen.

Then in 1952, carrying all his possessions in one suitcase, he arrived in Scotland as his cousin was living in Shandon.

One of the first things Zigi did when he moved to Scotland was to study art at Edinburgh College of Art and he later obtained a diploma for teachers of art from Moray House College in 1966.

Sharing his love of art was Zigi’s life and he taught for more than 20 years at Portobello High School.

He also gave lectures for the Scottish Arts Council and was elected a member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors.

While he was studying for his teaching qualification he met his wife, Paula, who was also living in exile from her native Zimbabwe.

The 72-year-old said: “It’s not easy being an artist’s wife and retaining your own identity, but what richness I have experienced.

“I wouldn’t have had Zigi any other way. He was so full of spirit.”

Latvian government officials now want to set up Zigi’s work at the barren Salaspils site – and they have Paula’s full support.

“I don’t want Zigi’s work gathering dust in the back of an art gallery. It is meant to be shared with people,” she said.

“From the age of three he always had a penknife and was constantly whittling away. He was a very humble man and he wanted to teach people and get them to tap into their own creativity.

“He used to say to me that creativity is what will set you free.”

Tributes have been flooding in since his death on August 19, as people all from all over the world have been touched by his work.

Paula said: “People were always very excited about Zigi’s work. His pieces were very moving.

“Everyone who came to our house, he would always share everything with them.

“He loved the Scots. He loved the culture and the history.”

In later years Zigi was diagnosed with macular degeneration – an eye condition leading to gradual loss of central vision – which meant Paula retired from her job teaching special needs education to become his full-time carer.

But the dedicated artist was still producing sculptures and wood carvings until three years before his death.

The injuries he suffered 
during his imprisonment plagued him for the rest of his life, particularly in the final months, said Paula.

Zigi walked with a limp and was missing a number of ribs due to the savage beatings he endured.

Once a hospital scan had to be cancelled when Paula told doctors he still had a piece of shrapnel lodged in his body.

A tiny scar on his arm even caused officials to accuse him of being a Nazi when the hunt for war criminals began after the end of the Second World War.

The little blue tattoo had once identified his blood group to concentration camp officials, as the inmates were forced to regularly donate blood.

But rumours spread the ‘blood marks’ belonged to Nazi sympathisers and he was banned from travelling to New Zealand by officials who wrongly thought he might have fought for the Germans during the Second World War.

lizzy.buchan@edinburghnews.com