On Wednesday night a copy of my new book — in part a family memoir of the Holocaust — was put in front of me, and I was asked to dedicate it to Sir Ben Helfgott. I was told by his family that he was very ill, so I knew very well what I was doing. Sending to the great man, someone I loved and admired, a last message.
I thanked him for his leadership and his inspiration. I knew he might not get to see what I had written, but comforted myself with the thought that he knew how I felt. Perhaps however, I should have added this to my message: “I’m not sure whether without you this book would have appeared”.
When my mother left Belsen and came to New York, she went to school and almost all talk of what she had experienced, ceased. Because she had come from Holland people asked her about windmills and clogs. Not about starvation and Nazis.
This pattern continued when she arrived here. Sometimes, at a dinner party, the guests would stumble upon the topic and be amazed. But in general, there was silence. And then, as the 1980s progressed things started to change.
My mother began to give talks. My mother began to give interviews. My mother was on the BBC. My mother went to Downing Street. My mother met the prime minister. And I think one of the main figures behind this great change — one that signalled a desire of British people to learn — was Ben Helfgott.
That’s why I say that without him my book might not have appeared. Who would have read it?
There is a reason he became Sir Ben. He was determined we would not forget and his determination was quite something to behold. You don’t become an athlete of Olympic standard without a strong core, a strong will. And so he helped make sure that the silence was broken. He insisted people talk and insisted others listen. And people weren’t easily able to deny Ben Helfgott.
Until almost the end, he was present at every major event where the suffering was remembered and the story was told. He will always be a presence for me in those meetings, even now he is no longer going to be physically present.
Quite apart from anything else he has left behind one of the finest families in the community and they will uphold his memory.
I know what it would have been like if there had never been Ben Helfgott because of my father. (Someone I am very proud to say that Ben much admired, which he was always keen to tell me)
My father’s experience at the hands of the Soviets did not have a Sir Ben to insist upon the story being told. And partly as a consequence it has been largely forgotten.
We are lucky to have had such a man as Sir Ben Helfgott. I feel lucky to have known him. Now he has gone. And my parents have gone. It’s our turn to tell the story. You taught us well Sir Ben, you taught us well, and we will not let you down.