Ben Helfgott was a tireless campaigner for Holocaust education and my hero

Holocaust Educational Trust CEO Karen Pollock shares her memories of Ben Helfgott


Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott holds a memorial candle as he stands on the Millennium Bridge in central London on January 27, 2013 during an event marking Holocaust Memorial Day. AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

June 16, 2023 12:40

Ben was unlike anyone else I have ever known. It is difficult to put into words what he meant to us all.

He was born in 1929 in Poland. He grew up in a normal, Jewish family. He lived with his father Moishe, his mother Sara, and his sisters Lusia and Mala. He was a good student. He loved sports. He went to Cheder.

In 1939 that all changed when the Nazis occupied Poland. Ben and his family were forced into the Piotrkow Ghetto. Aged just 12 he started working in a glass factory as a slave labourer. One day he came back to the Ghetto after the nightshift and found the inhabitants being deported. In the space of a week 22,000 of the Ghetto’s 24,000 inhabitants were sent to their deaths in Treblinka, Ben’s grandfather among them. Only those with work permits were permitted to stay. The family managed to get Mala into hiding, while Sara and Lusia hid in the Ghetto itself.

Eventually, the Nazis announced an ‘amnesty.’ All those in hiding could come out, and there would be no consequences. Of course, it was a lie. Ben’s mother Sara and his little sister Lusia were rounded up into the town’s synagogue with over 500 others. They were taken to the nearby Rakow Forest and were shot.

In 1944 the Ghetto was liquidated and Mala was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and Ben and Moishe to Buchenwald. A week later Ben was sent to Schlieben labour camp, and from there to Terezin. In May 1945 he was finally liberated. He heard soon after that his father had been shot trying to escape from a Death March. Ben adored his father and they had endured so much together. This news came as a devastating blow and something Ben carried with him all his life.

Ben was 15 years old, and alone. He heard about a British Government scheme to bring child orphans to the UK. Ben remembered his father talking fondly of England and knew that he wanted to come here. Ben, along with 732 other orphaned children were brought to Windermere. ‘The Boys’ as they would become known, began to rebuild their lives. Ben learned English, ate real food, slept in a clean bed. Just two years after arriving in England he was awarded a scholarship to a grammar school.

In 1948, Ben walked past young men on Hampstead Heath lifting weights. He had never lifted weights before and asked to try. Ben quickly went on to become a champion weightlifter. In 1956, just 11 years after his liberation, he captained the British Olympic Weightlifting team and Ben set the new British record of 248lb. He captained the next Olympics too in 1960. He won bronze at the 1958 Commonwealth Games and Gold at three Maccabiah Games in Israel.

Ben never stopped working towards ensuring that the Holocaust would be remembered. He campaigned for a Holocaust Memorial to be built in London’s Hyde Park – the first one in the UK. He advised David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission, which paved the way for a Holocaust Memorial to be built in Westminster - Ben would have dearly liked to have seen this hard work come to fruition. He campaigned for property stolen from Jews during the Holocaust to be returned to their rightful owners and for survivors to receive compensation. He also worked for over half a century leading the 45 Aid Society, an organisation he helped to establish to support survivors. He served on Boards and committees, and he spoke in schools, on the international stage, to the great and the good.

He never slowed down, he led the way.

Ben was so many things to us all. He was a Holocaust survivor, and a champion. He was a Knight of the British Realm. He was fiercely intelligent. He was a friend and mentor. He was a devoted husband to Arza, a wonderful support to Mala his only surviving sister, a brilliant father to Maurice, Nathan and Michael, and a much-loved grandfather.

Once Ben had an idea, he would go to extraordinary lengths to see it through. He mentored me, he challenged me, he even gave me fitness tips! He was my hero.

Karen Pollock CBE is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust.

June 16, 2023 12:40

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