War survivor’s ‘Tree of Life’ sculpture gifted to college

Paula Sapietis pictured in the studio with works by her late husband Zigi Sapietis
Paula Sapietis pictured in the studio with works by her late husband Zigi Sapietis
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A SCULPTURE designed to represent the power of learning is set to be unveiled at an adult education college in tribute to its celebrated creator.

The ‘Tree of Life’ statue is one of countless pieces produced by the late Zigfrids “Zigi” Sapietis, who moved to Scotland in 1952 after surviving brutal treatment in both Riga Central Prison and Salaspils concentration camp.

Now his widow, Paula Sapietis, has gifted the unique piece to Newbattle Abbey College, just a stone’s throw from the couple’s cottage.

Zigi eventually settled in the Midlothian village with Paula and worked from a studio at home until his death in 2014 aged 90.

Paula, 75, explained Zigi loved walking in the Newbattle woods and was allowed by college staff to collect fallen trees for use in his work.

She said: “Zigi saw nature as an educator – he honoured both nature and education, not in an academic sense but in its true sense about life.

“Over the years he had a lot of association with the college, he was always allowed to take fallen wood.

“He was in his element there as a sculptor – a lover of wood and a lover of Scotland.”

The copper and metal sculpture, which stands at around two meters tall, will be on display in one of the college’s student courtyards as a lasting tribute to Zigi.

In addition to his sculptures, Zigi also taught at Portobello High School for more than 20 years. His ‘Tree of Life’ piece is designed to symbolise the importance of education.

Paula added: “He always felt education gave you a chance in life – it’s like a tree, you branch out. It’s really enlivened the place [Newbattle College] up, it’s shining a light there.

“It’s very symbolic about how education gives you access to life and that’s what the college does.

“They [his sculptures] part of his soul and I know he would like part of his soul resting at a place like Newbattle Abbey which is so highly regarded.”

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.

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

He was taken to Riga Central Prison where he was held captive for around six months, and later taken to taken to Salaspils concentration camp in 1943.

The ‘Tree of Life’ will be officially unveiled in a special ceremony on Friday.

As well as Paula, attendees will include Baiba Braze, Latvia’s ambassador to the UK, MSP Alasdair Allan, Scotland’s minister for international development and Europe and John McGregor, honorary consul for Latvia in Edinburgh and Scotland.

Ann Southwood, principal of Newbattle Abbey College, said: “Zigi was a great lover and supporter of the college and it is wonderful to have this lasting tribute to his life and work.

“We are very grateful to Paula, who continues to visit the college regularly and sings in our choir, for gifting this magnificent work to us.”