27/02/2024
Norwich, GB 4 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

SIR BEN HELFGOTT, aged 93

OLYMPIAN and HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR

Born Beniek Helfgott in the village of Pabianice in Poland, his family moved to Piotrkow Trybunalski, a town near Lodz. It had a population of 55,000, of which 15,000 were Jewish.

His father, Moishe, ran a flour mill and was a respected member of the community. His mother, Sara Klein, was a homemaker and he had two younger sisters, Mala and Lucia. He was always known as Ben. They lived in a large apartment.

It was a close-knit community. He had 23 cousins living close by.

Ben loved school and had a thirst for knowledge. He was very sporty as well and often played against older boys. “I was younger than most. But when we raced in the park, I always won.” He was noted for both his sense of fair play and his remarkable strength for a boy of his age.

Ben was 9 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland on 1st September 1939. He and his sisters were staying with their Grandparents in Sieradz, 50 miles from home.

The invasion seemed initially to pass Sieradz by. “It was all very peaceful.”

Then Ben’s parents joined them. Soon afterwards, “All hell broke loose.”

The Nazis bombed the area extensively. Buildings went up in flames. Ben saw humans and animals killed in front of his eyes – often in the most horrific manner.

The family fled to a nearby forest. “It was not a clever move. Trees burn easily.”

It was carnage, so the family decided to return home to Piotrkow.

When they got there, the Nazis had seized full control. The family were sent to a newly created ghetto.

Hundreds of Jews were executed in a nearby cemetery, including two of Ben’s uncles.

The Ghetto had no barbed wire and was loosely guarded. Moishe tried to start a flour mill within it, to feed the people.  He forged a pass to get himself out, so he could find wheat to grind, and extra food for the family. The guards were inexperienced, so had no idea what a real pass looked like.

Ben, and his mother Sara, begged Moishe to stop his trips as they were too dangerous. Moishe responded, “I’d like to see how long you will talk like this if you have to live on just potatoes and salt.”

Despite the lack of security, nobody tried to escape. “We were too terrified.”

Ben remembered the senior Nazi official would occasionally visit the ghetto. He brought with him his ferocious dog. “It had been trained to go for men’s and boy’s testicles. Nobody survived an attack from that dog. I once managed to jump over a fence as it started to chase me.” It left Ben with a lifelong fear of dogs.

Despite being young, Ben was sent by his father to work in a glass factory. There were rumours that if you did work that helped the Germans, you would not be sent away (to a concentration camp). Ben had to lift heavy boxes which built his strength up.

He got no pay and yet refused to class himself as a slave labourer as he was able to return to his family each evening. “Slaves don’t get that luxury.”

Initially, the family managed to avoid the round-ups, but their luck was to run out.

In December 1942, the Nazis attacked a synagogue, where a service was taking place. All 533 people inside the building were arrested.

Moishe managed to get official permission to have his wife Sara released – but was unable to get Lucia, his daughter, freed. Sara refused to leave Lucia.

Incredibly, before being taken away, Sara managed to persuade the Nazis to leave his other sister Mala behind in the synagogue, claiming she was too ill to travel. Thus, Mala survived.

The prisoners were held for 3 days before they were taken to a cemetery and shot, all 532 of them, including Sara and  Lucia.

Ben missed the round up as he was at work and Moishe was on one of his foraging journeys.

Moishe instantly gave up his journeys and with Ben and Mala, went to work in a woodwork factory.

By 1944, the survivors of the ghetto had been sent to concentration camps. Mala was sent to Ravensbruck and Ben and Moishe went to Buchenwald. Ben remembered, “It was a terrible place.”

Ben was extremely lucky to survive. Whilst on a working party in a quarry, an SS Officer was about to shoot him. He only survived because the leader of the party, a man called Janota, lied, and told the officer Ben was not Jewish.

From there he was transferred to Schlieben camp and then onto Theresienstadt.  His father was left behind at Buchenwald.

Theresienstadt was in Czechoslovakia. It was regarded as the ‘model’ concentration camp – the one the Nazis showed the Red Cross around. Consequently, conditions were less harsh there than in other camps. More sinisterly, inmates were regularly sent from there to Auschwitz.

Children in Theresienstadt camp (courtesy Holocaust Encyclopedia)

At the end of the war, the inmates of Buchenwald were sent on the forced ‘Death March’ to avoid liberation by Allied forces. Moishe was shot dead whilst trying to escape. He was 38 years old.

When Theresienstadt was liberated by Czech partisans on 9th May 1945, Ben was 15 years old and was very weak. Nevertheless, he put his survival down to his pre-war sporting prowess. “I could never have survived the Holocaust without that strength.”

At this time, he looked like “a walking skeleton”, and weighed under 6 stones.

Out of his 23 cousins, just 3 survived the holocaust. His class at school had 24 children. Only 2 were still alive at the end of the war, including Ben.

As soon as they were liberated, with one of his remaining cousins, Ben got a train back to his hometown of Piotrkow.

There, they were walking through the streets when they were arrested by two armed Polish police officers. They were taken into a dark alley, pinned against a wall and guns held to their head.

Ben appealed to their Polish patriotism and begged for his life. They were let go – “Leave them – they’re just kids.”  One of the policeman said, “Consider yourself lucky. You are the first of your kind we’ve left alive.”

Ben was stunned that anti-semitism was still going on, even after the Nazis had gone. He and his cousin immediately caught a train back to Theresienstadt.

There, he heard one of the other boys in the camp saying he was being sent to England. “I wanted to go too – when I heard those words I could think of nothing else.”

World Jewish Relief had negotiated the passage of 732 orphaned children to England – all under the age of 16.

Theresienstadt provided part of the first 300 arrivals – and Ben was amongst them. He spoke no English – although he was to pick it up very quickly.

When they arrived in the UK, being flown from Prague to Carlisle in RAF bombers, they were sent to Troutbeck Bridge in the Lake District. There, they became known as ‘The Windemere Children’.

They, as Holocaust survivors, bonded together. They called themselves ‘The Boys’ – even though there were as many girls as boys amongst them.

“It was the first time in 6 years that we were treated as human beings, given good food, clean bedding and a chance to think of the future. It was heavenly.”

The children swam, hiked, watched movies and even went on holiday to the Isle of Wight, a place Ben grew to love.

Ben learned his sister Mala had survived the concentration camp and had been relocated to London.

He asked if he could join her there and was accepted at Plaistow Grammar School. There, just 2 years after arriving in England, he got his high school certificate.

The younger Ben (courtesy The Times of Israel)

At the same time, he joined the Primrose Club for Young Survivors in the East End of London. It was run by former German swimmer Paul ‘Yogi’ Mayer. He had been in the German team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics but had been thrown off the team for being Jewish.

Mayer subsequently emigrated to the United Kingdom and fought the war with the Allies in the Special Forces.

Ben played many sports at the Primrose Club and was first in everything. He was particularly talented at gymnastics, volleyball and table tennis.

One day, he took a walk on Hampstead Heath. There were some people doing outdoor weightlifting and he asked if he could try it. “Just for fun, I had a go.” The lifters were so impressed with his efforts that they told him he should take up the sport.

At the Primrose Club, Ben asked the coach if he could lift the weights and was told ‘no’.

He ignored the comment and went over and began lifting them, with absolutely no difficulty. The coach said to him, “I am not taking responsibility for you.”

Ben’s weightlifting career had begun. He started entering competitions and was winning them.

But Olympic sports like weightlifting, were amateur in those days and Ben needed to make a living.

He went to Southampton University in 1948, to study History and Languages, but he left after one year to set up a business with a friend of his.

They made cheap dresses. It was a successful business and Ben spent the rest of his working career with them. They eventually diversified into sportswear for women.

Then, Ben was selected for the British team for the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. However, he contracted appendicitis and had to withdraw, becoming merely a spectator.

He won the 1954 British Weightlifting Championship in the 11 stone (70kg) category and repeated this achievement in 1955, 1956 and 1958.

This was enough to ensure he became the captain of the British weightlifting team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. By competing there, he became only the second Holocaust survivor to compete in the Olympic Games.

The first was French swimmer and water polo player, Alfred Nakache, at the 1948 London games.

The opening ceremony was on his 27th birthday. He said walking behind the British flag made him so proud – “the best birthday ever.” This was just 11 years after he had left the concentration camp.

Ben said, “I felt like I was representing all the talent that was unable to reach its potential because of the Nazi horror.”

He added, “I felt how proud my parents would have been.”

Ben was to return to the Olympics, again as captain, in the 1960 Rome games. He did not win an Olympic medal but later said he did not expect to. He only trained 5 hours a week due to the commitments of running his business.

In the meantime, he had competed in the 1950, 1953 and 1957 Maccabiah Games – also known as the ‘Jewish Olympics’.

Ben also won a bronze medal at the 1958 Empire and Commonwealth Games, held in Cardiff.

In 1966, Ben married Arza, a pharmacist from Rhodesia. They had three sons, Maurice, Michael and Nathan.

In 1972, Ben officiated in the weightlifting competition at the Munich Olympics. He had a meeting with the Israeli team late one night, which finished at 1:30am.

Later that morning, Black September stormed the headquarters of the Israeli team and murdered 12 of them – including weightlifters. Ben believed he was the last person to see some of them before their captivity and subsequent death.

He believed he had in his life, witnessed the very worst side of mankind.

Aged just 52, Ben decided to step down from his company and dedicate himself to helping other Holocaust survivors. He created the ‘Aid45 Society’, made up of former members of the Windemere Children. They were designed to help any Holocaust victim. Ben was the Chairman for 43 years.

The ‘Boys’ were so incredibly close – “like brothers and sisters – we had shared experiences nobody else could understand.” They were like one big family – a surrogate for those they had lost in the Holocaust.

In later years, when Ben’s oldest son Maurice got married, 450 guests turned up – all members of ‘The Boys’ (and their families).

Ben also served on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and chaired their ‘Yad Vashem Committee’, which was dedicated to holocaust education. He believed it was important to tell the stories of those that had been killed. “We can’t bring them back. Their memory has to stay alive, not just for them but for posterity.”

He was also Chairman of the Holocaust Education Trust for many years.

Ben also raised money for various charities. All this work earned him the MBE.

He also increasingly dedicated himself to Polish–Jewish reconciliation. He angered Jewish extremists by saying not every Pole was responsible for the wartime atrocities.

He was deeply concerned by what he perceived to be a rise in anti-semitism in Eastern Europe.

Ben also served on the Claims Conference, which negotiated compensation for holocaust victims.

In 2005, Ben was awarded the Polish Commanders Cross of the Order. By now he had also been initiated into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

In 2007, he appeared on Desert Island Discs. His chosen book was Bertrand Russell’s ‘A History of Western Philosophy’. His luxury item was a bar with 2 weights so he could carry on lifting.

He was asked on the programme how he survived. “I was lucky. I had a father who worked to save me – and I found England.” He said that he had never experienced any anti-semitism in Britain at all.

Ben was interviewed for an exhibition at the London Jewish Museum about different ways of being Jewish. He was one of 5 Holocaust survivors selected.

In 2016, Ben decided to retire, so he gave up his positions of responsibility. He said he would use his time to learn more languages – even though he spoke 7 fluently.

In 2017, Martin Gilbert published a book entitled ‘The Boys : The Story of 732 Young Concentration Camp Survivors’. It was about the Windermere Children and his story is one of the selected ones.

In 2018, Ben was knighted for his work for peace and charity. It was then that he met Prince Charles, who questioned him at length about his experiences.

That same year, Ben appeared in an episode of the TV programme ‘Who do You Think You Are?’ The subject was Judge Robert Rinder. Ben knew Rinder’s grandfather, Moszek whilst in Schlieben Concentration Camp.

Ben finally gave up weightlifting when he was 90 years old.

There is a bust of him in the National Portrait Gallery.

When he died, his son Michael said, “He was a man who would rather talk about the good things people do.”

Karen Pollock, the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Trust, said, “Ben was indomitable. One of a kind. He was my hero, and it is difficult to describe the void he will leave. He will be hugely missed.”

King Charles sent a letter of condolence, that was read out at Ben’s Shiva. It said, “Ben truly cherished the welcome that this country gave him – and I know he called himself a great Anglophile. In return, he made a great contribution to British life.”

Ben is survived by his sister Mala, and his wife Arza.

RIP – Refugee’s International Performances

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