Sir Ben Helfgott has been a giant in the field of Holocaust education, commemoration, restitution and support for decades – and has been our compass, keeping us straight and true.
He has been our friend and guide, championing us when he thinks we merit it, scolding us when he thought we deserve it.
We have been recounting our favourite Ben stories, among them the time when our Patron, the former Prince of Wales, held a reception for survivors of the Holocaust and recent genocides in St James’ Palace. We attempted to escort Ben, then in his last eighties, up the lengthy staircase. He was having none of it. Oblivious to health and safety (what Chief Executive or Chair wants to see their Hon President fall downstairs at a Royal event?!), he insisted firstly that he was actually fit enough to run up the stairs, and secondly, proved it by running ahead of us.
And then there was the time we went to his house to find he had laid out reams of papers, all of which he intended us to go through and memorise.
He led from the front and expected us all to live up to his extraordinary standards. There are times we failed, but we loved the way he taught and taught and taught. There was no giving up.
Ben was not only an exceptionally charismatic and passionate individual. He was also one who has made a lasting difference to our world. We’d like to highlight just two examples.
Firstly: personal. The impact he made on countless thousands of people cannot be overstated. To meet Ben, listen to his testimony, be in conversation with him, was to be subject to his charm and passion – you didn’t want to let him down. It was impressive to see this effect on thousands of young people and quite extraordinary to see the same impression on politicians, celebrities and senior leaders in all walks of life.
Secondly: institutional. Ben instinctively understood that in addition to impacting on individuals before him, national and international legacies could only be created and sustained through the establishment and long-term development of organisations. He realized too that no one organization could achieve all that is necessary in the Holocaust field. His active, engaged, meaningful involvement in the setting up and support over decades of so many is quite simply astonishing. 45 Aid Society, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Lake District Holocaust Project, Holocaust Educational Trust, Claims Conference, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance…the list goes on.
We’re writing these words in the sunshine in the London suburbs, not far from where Ben and his wonderful wife, Arza, brought up their family. It’s immeasurably distant from the trauma Ben experienced during the Holocaust – remote in geography, in years and in stability.
Ben knew, however, we can never take this sunshiny stability for granted, and that we must continue to work tirelessly to ensure the Holocaust is not forgotten. And that what we learn about and from it, spurs us to treat others with respect, to be kind and generous in heart, and to be courageous in challenging prejudice. To be like Ben.
Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and Laura Marks OBE is Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.