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A lifetime of life writing

Jonathan Freedland interviews his dad, Michael about his latest biography of the survivor who became an Olympic weightlifter, Ben Helfgott

    Ben Helfgott, Olympic weightlifter
    Ben Helfgott, Olympic weightlifter

    There probably are some Jewish Chronicle readers who were reading the paper before my father, Michael Freedland, started writing for it – but there can’t be many. His first JC contribution came in November 1951 when, aged 16, he filed a paragraph on the Luton presence at that year’s remembrance parade of Jewish ex-servicemen. He was working then as a copy-holder, a kind of assistant proof reader, at The Luton News, but for that JC story he received 10 shillings and sixpence - his first ever freelance payment – which he thought made him “rich beyond measure.” His byline has appeared regularly in this paper ever since. That’s 67 years and counting.

    It’s an odd thing to be writing about your own father this way, but think of it as returning a compliment. Last year, the JC decided the person who should interview me about the publication of my latest novel was…my Dad. Then, when his new book was released, we would switch roles. That moment has now come, with the launch of Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys, a new biography by Michael Freedland. Incredibly, he’s written more than 40.

    In a way, it marks a return to the themes of that first, brief JC report back in 1951: Jews, war and remembrance. For Helfgott is perhaps Britain’s best-known survivor of the Holocaust.

    For Michael – it feels odd to call him that, but “Dad” won’t quite work either – it’s something of a departure. Almost all his previous books have been studies of Hollywood stars and showbiz legends, from Al Jolson and Fred Astaire to Judy Garland and Katharine Hepburn. This is the first time he has touched on the Shoah.

    He tells me he had long wanted to write in this area, contemplating a biography of his late friend Rabbi Hugo Gryn. That didn’t come off, but the interest endured and in Helfgott’s life he found what, he says, “the journalist in me always looks for: an extraordinary story.”

    Raised in the small town of Pietrkow, Helfgott’s life turned upside down shortly before his 10th birthday when the Nazis arrived and herded Pietrkow’s Jews into a ghetto. His mother and one of his sisters were shot dead, but Ben and his father survived because they found work, including in a factory making wooden huts. From the ghetto, Helfgott was deported to a series of concentration camps, including Buchenwald, where he became separated from his father who was shot trying to escape, before finally reaching Theresienstadt, from where he was liberated in 1945. It is a harrowing, compelling story.

    But it also comes with a twist. For Helfgott made his way to Britain as one of “The Boys”, the 750 or so young men and women who had survived the camps and were offered a home in this country. (The scheme allowed for 1000 such refugees, but only 750 could be found.) A little over a decade later, Helfgott was representing his new land as a champion weightlifter at the Olympics in Melbourne and Rome, one of only two Holocaust survivors ever to have competed in the Games. Helfgott’s life is, says Michael, “the story of an incredible adventure.”

    Telling it required a change in approach for this longtime chronicler of the lives of others. (My father’s autobiography is called Confessions of a Serial Biographer.) When writing about Hollywood stars or studio bosses, whether Bob Hope or the Warner Brothers, his usual practice involves interviewing scores of friends and colleagues, each one corroborating the testimony of the other until a full picture emerges. “With Ben, I spoke to his sister, his wife and his children, of course. But mainly it was hour after hour after hour with Ben himself. The transcripts of our conversations ran to 600 pages.” With his previous subjects, Michael would cast his net broad and wide. Here he had to focus narrowly - and drill down deep.

    If I seem to know my father’s working methods intimately, that’s hardly a surprise. Growing up in Elstree, my childhood bedroom was just off his study: I went to sleep to the sound of his typewriter. As a child, I’d often hover in the studio at BBC Radio London as he presented You Don’t Have to be Jewish, or YDHTBJ as he called it, the magazine programme that ran in the capital for nearly 24 years. And, aged 14, I went with him on one of those trips to LA, sitting quietly as he interviewed a procession of stooped old men and women who turned out to be veterans of the golden age of Hollywood.

    And yet even I found much to be surprised by earlier this year when BBC Radio 4 Extra broadcast a three-hour trawl through my father’s archive for a programme they called The Freedland Files. All those years when my late mother, Sara, would scold him for hoarding piles of old tapes had paid off at last, as Michael went through his collection – which may well be the largest such archive in private hands in the country – playing extracts of his most notable interviews, some conducted for YDHTBJ, the rest for his books or series that ran on Radio 2 or Radio 4.

    Michael Freedland
    Michael Freedland

    There he was chatting away not only with the likes of Bing Crosby and Ginger Rogers, but less expectedly, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher. Then a mere leader of the opposition, Thatcher insisted on showing Michael some Ulster glassware she’d bought and bragging about the low price she’d got in the sale. To say nothing of the Israeli PMs: Michael interviewed all of them from Golda to Bibi.

    The programme also featured a conversation with Morecambe and Wise. I remembered that one because I was there at the time. Eric greeted me by asking, “How’s the wife?” I was 10 years old.

    My father’s has been quite a career, meeting many of the starriest names of the 20th century. And, at 83, he’s still working, now writing the biography of a leading Hollywood lawyer. He’s taught me so much about journalism, but also an important lesson about life: that if you're doing what you love, don’t stop.

    I ask if he feels he’s been lucky. In one way, we both know the answer. Our family has been struck by much ill fortune: his wife Sara, my mother, was felled by a neurological illness in her early 40s and, while she fought back from that, she died in 2012. His first-born child, my sister Fiona, died from cancer two years later.

    So “lucky” is not quite the right word. But he knows he’s fortunate to be busy still, whether writing or lecturing on the cruise ships that have taken him all over the world, now with Adele Levy, who, like him, was widowed in 2012, at his side and in his heart. I ask if he has any plans to slow down. “Not if I can help it,” he says.

     

    Ben Helgott: The Story of One of the Boys is published by Vallentine Mitchell, £20, but available at the special price of £16.95 from their website www.vmbooks.com using discount code JC18, valid until 24 May 2018.

    Michael Freedland will be discussing the book with Daniel Finkelstein at JW3 on 13 June.

     

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