Sir Ben Helfgott, Holocaust survivor, Olympian and Jewish hero passes away aged 93

Chief Rabbi leads tributes to inspirational leader


LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Sir Ben Helfgott poses after being made a Knight Bachelor at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on November 21, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Chief Rabbi has led tributes to Sir Ben Helfgott, "a charismatic and passionate leader", whose death at the age of 93 was announced today.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said: “Sir Ben Helfgott was one of the most inspirational people I have known. 

“He was a charismatic and passionate leader, who promoted the values of compassion, understanding, love and peaceful coexistence. 

“His own horrific experiences inspired him to work tirelessly for a more peaceful and unified world and he inspired us to do likewise. Our thoughts today are with his wife Arza, sons Maurice, Michael and Nathan, and his inimitable sister Mala Tribich.”

Holocaust survivor Sir Ben was also one of only two Jewish athletes to survive the Shoah and compete in the Olympic Games.

Karen Pollock CBE, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “Sir Ben Helfgott was a giant amongst men.

"A Holocaust survivor, Olympic champion, campaigner, visionary and our leader. Despite all he endured, Ben taught us all about resilience, tolerance and the crucial importance of educating future generations. He was our friend and mentor and we mourn his loss deeply.”

World Jewish Relief’s Chief Executive Paul Anticoni added: “Ben was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Having been through unimaginable horror, his determination to remember the past and shape the future was infectious. 

“His commitment to Holocaust education was defining and he was immensely influential in ensuring Holocaust Survivors worldwide benefited and continue to benefit from restitution funding.  

“He was fascinating company, could talk for hours, cheeky and thoughtful, and in the companionship of his wonderful wife Arza, was a true great.

“We send our heartfelt wishes for a long life to the entire Helfgott family. We will continue to be inspired by Sir Ben Helfgott’s legacy and everything that he represented: resilience in the aftermath of tragedy, commitment to education, sportsmanship, and love for family.”

Former British prime minister Sir Tony Blair said: "Sir Ben Helfgott was truly extraordinary. He endured the horrors of the Holocaust and dedicated his long and distinguished life to peace and understanding, inspiring and moving so many people fortunate to know him. A tremendous legacy, one to be remembered and cherished."

Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies said: “Today we mourn the passing of a man whose greatness was unparalleled. Sir Ben Helfgott survived the Holocaust and came to this country at the age of 15. He would go on to become a champion weightlifter, representing Britain at two Olympic Games.

"His legacy, and his work for Holocaust education, inspired so many of us, and we treasured the time he spent with us as a Deputy for the '45 Aid Society, which he led for so many years. Our thoughts are with his wife Arza, sister Mala, also a survivor, his sons, Maurice, Michael and Nathan, and the entire family. May his memory be for eternal blessing.”

Yad Vashem UK, which promotes Holocaust education and awareness, described Sir Ben as an "inspirational friend"said it was "deeply saddened" by his death.

Daniel Carmel-Brown, Jewish Care CEO said: "Sir Ben Helfgott was a truly remarkable and valued member of our community. His steadfast commitment to Holocaust education has meant that millions of people all over the world have heard his story and know the true horror of what he and so many others went through.

"Sir Ben Helfgott will be deeply missed by all those who knew him. We wish his family a long life. May his memory be for a blessing."

Michael Newman, CEO The Association of Jewish Refugees said : “It is with huge sadness that we heard about the passing of Sir Ben Helfgott, a towering figure in the field of Holocaust memorialisation.

"As Chairman of the ‘45 Aid Society for many years, Sir Ben passionately and determinedly supported his fellow survivors and campaigned to ensure that they received welfare support as well as compensation in recognition of their suffering.

"He was also an active trustee, supporter and campaigner for many organisations, championing the cause of Holocaust remembrance and education internationally.

"We send our sincerest condolences to Sir Ben’s family; they can be rightly proud of his many accomplishments.” 

Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said she was "heartbroken" by the death of her "dear friend".

She said: "Ben's loss to the Holocaust education and commemoration sector is incalculable – his loss to me as a friend and inspiration is even harder to bear.  I’ll miss his advice, guidance, and constructive criticism. Ben's memory will forever remain a cherished blessing to me personally.’

Sir Ben, who was knighted in 2018 in recognition of his long service to Holocaust education, was born in Poland in November 1929, in the small town of Piotrkow.

As a child, Helfgott lived a happy life with his parents, grandmother and two sisters. 

However, on September 1, 1939, Helfgott heard bombs falling and sirens wailing after the Nazi Germany invasion of Poland. He was ten years old at the time and travelling home from a holiday to visit his grandfather, aunt and uncle.

Sometime later, the family was ordered to move into a ghetto with thousands of Jews forced to live in cramped living conditions. 

Helfgott himself also found he could pass for a non-Jewish Polish citizen and spent a great deal of time outside the ghetto.

Three years later the ghetto had been closed as many Jews were being rounded up for ‘resettlement” to concentration camps.

Helfgott was sent to Buchenwald in 1944 along with his father. He was separated from his father who had been shot dead as he tried to escape from a death march leaving the camp.

Helfgott was sent first to a concentration camp in Schlieben and then on to Theresienstadt. He later discovered that only days from the end of the war, his father had been shot dead as he tried to escape from a death march leaving the camp.

Ben’s younger sister, Luisa, and his mother were murdered while another sister, Mala, was deported to Ravensbruck with their cousin, Ann.

Helfgott reunited with his cousin, Gienek, in Theresienstadt at the end of the war and decided to accept an invitation to move to Britain after almost being murdered by Polish army officers.

Helfgott arrived in Britain with 300 other young Jews and was first sent to Windermere in the Lake District. 

This move marked the beginning of a new chapter in Helfgott’s life with new friendships which would characterise his future life. 

There was also the creation of "The Boys” which morphed into the groundbreaking 45 Aid Society. The Boys, who actually included 204 girls, became a tight-knit friendship group, much like an extended family.

After turning 18, he was poised to go to Southampton University but then spotted some people on Hampstead Heath lifting weights. 

Helfgott asked if he could try and to people’s astonishment, he lifted 180 lbs with ease. He then began intense training and later won a gold medal at the 1950 Maccabiah Games in Israel.

By 1956 he was representing Britain at the Olympic Games in Melbourne and two years later he won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

In 1960 won another bronze at the Olympic Games in Rome and became captain of the British weightlifting team on all these occasions.

He later married a woman called Arza and had three sons and was reunited with his sister Mala.

In later life, he spoke repeatedly about cultural integration and peace, giving regular Holocaust education lessons and was praised for his continued open hand of warmth and friendship towards the Polish people. 

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