Last week, I tried explaining about Sir Ben Helfgott to a group of people who didn’t know. His knighthood had just been announced, and they were curious.
So I started with his moving Holocaust story, with the terrible death of his mother and sister, with losing his father and with his survival of Buchenwald and Thereisenstadt. There was silence in the room.
Then, as casually as I could, I told them that, after the war, Sir Ben had been swimming in Hampstead Heath and had noticed three young men lifting weights. Wrestling had been his sport but now he wondered if he, too, could lift weights. The first time he tried it, without any training, he lifted 185 pounds at a time when the record was 209 pounds.
And that is how, I said, this camp survivor ended up representing Britain in two Olympic Games.
Looking round the room I saw I had hit the mark, but you know what? At this point, I hadn’t even got to the most important thing about Sir Ben Helfgott.
To appreciate what that is, I need to discuss my own family a little. My mother, as I know I have explained before, had her own story of Holocaust tragedy and survival. By the end of her life she had told it many times.
Mum had been heard in school and at conferences, she had given countless interviews, she had been filmed for archives and museums, she had been flown to Germany as the subject of a BBC radio documentary, she had told her tale to the Prime Minister and his wife, and been asked to Downing Street to bear witness in a private meeting with the Chancellor’s family. And, when she died, she was accorded a large obituary in more than one newspaper.
We used to joke together that Holocaust Memorial Day was her “busy season”.
But it hadn’t always been that way.
When she first came to Britain, she just had to get on with her life as a teenager despite everything that had happened to her. Sometimes one of the other children would get her to say some Dutch words for fun. But apart from that, Fawlty Towers-style, nobody mentioned the war.
That persisted long into her adult life. Very occasionally, at a dinner party, a chain of conversation would lead to Mum explaining her background. And, she said, people were completely astonished.
Indeed, this went on so long that, although I knew the story from a very young age, I was old enough to give advice by the time my mother was asked to give her first speech on the subject. I recall her asking, before setting off to address my Hebrew classes in our synagogue, whether I thought the audience would be interested in the fact that she knew Anne Frank and had seen her arrive in Belsen.
It was many years before I got my first job in newspapers, but even at that age I had enough journalistic instinct to be able to reply: “Yes, Mum, I think they will be interested.”
The change between the lack of interest in Mum’s story in those early years to the interest shown in her final years? I think a lot of that was down to Sir Ben Helfgott.
My grandfather, Mum’s father Alfred Wiener, devoted his life to making people understand what the Holocaust was. It is important to understand that this was an intellectual and political achievement, that it didn’t come naturally. Many archivists, researchers,historians and journalists had to fight to establish what happened and that it was a genocidal attack on the Jews.
Sir Ben has played a critical role in this work and is a towering figure within it. He has battled for the Holocaust to be understood and remembered. He is the person who laid the ground-work for the Holocaust to be commemorated and its education spread.
Michael Freedland, the much loved chronicler of Jewish life, has now written a life of Sir Ben Helfgott (Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys; Vallentine Mitchell). Most of the book tells the story of the camps, of death and of survival. And there is sport, too, of course. But he leaves enough space to tell the other story. The life and times of a great educator. Do read it.