A guest of honor at a recent Limmud FSU “Olympics” Festival for Russian-speaking Jews, held in Upper Nazareth, was a diminutive 82-year-old figure with piercing blue eyes.
In 1956, 27-year-old Ben Helfgott was captain of the British weight lifting team at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Just 11 years earlier, in May 1945, the emaciated and gaunt 15-year-old boy was liberated from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, weighing 38 kilograms.
Helfgott was born on November 22, 1929, in Piotrkow, a town in central Poland (near Lodz) where a quarter of the 55,000 residents were Jews. Ben lived a comfortable existence with his parents, Moshe (a flour merchant) and Sara, and two sisters, Lusia and Mala, with a large extended family nearby. Of Helfgott’s 23 cousins, only three survived the war.
As a child, Helfgott was a self-confessed sports addict. “I was always challenging the other boys to see who was the best wrestler, the fastest runner, or who could jump higher or longer. I loved all sports and was extremely competitive,” he tells me.
But the lives of the Jews of Poland, and of the Helfgotts among them, were to change drastically when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. He tells the story of that time in an emotional and still heavily Polish-inflected English.
“We were on holiday when the war broke out. We desperately tried to get home and instead of the usual two hours it took us 10, because there were aerial bombing raids along the way. We eventually got home, but then fled into the nearby woods and spent a week moving from place to place with carnage all around us. People were being strafed by low-flying planes, others were screaming for help. Limbs, heads and other body parts were strewn all around.
The smell of putrefying flesh has remained in my nostrils to this day. Eventually the Nazis caught up with us and we returned to Piotrkow, which had been hit by incendiary bombs.
“Back in Piotrkow, the Germans had occupied the city, beginning with the synagogue, where they burned all the holy books and Scrolls of the Law and shot anyone who tried to flee, including the rabbi. In November, we were forced to move into a ghetto it was the first ghetto in Poland and some 28,000 Jews were crammed into an area that had previously housed 5,000. Most of the ghetto had no electricity, water or sanitary facilities of any kind, and a typhoid epidemic soon broke out. In October 1942, the deportations began and people began to disappear we did not know then where to or what their fate would be. Only a few came back.”
Ben’s father, Moshe, had a pass from the Germans allowing him to pass in and out of the ghetto which he obtained from a Pole who owned a flour mill, and with whom he had been a partner that allowed him to smuggle large quantities of flour into the ghetto. Through his connections, he was able to get a job in a large glass factory outside the ghetto for the unusually strong, 12-year-old Ben.
The factory worked in three shifts and Ben was consigned to the night shift. He was taunted by his Polish coworkers and the meister (master craftsman) responsible for the shift.
Moshe asked the man why he was treating a young boy so badly, and he was evidently ashamed of his behavior. A few days later, the SS came to the factory with a deportation quota to fill and demanded to arrest any Jews working there. The meister, Andrej Janotta, pulled Ben back and swore that the boy was Polish. “In doing so, Janotta saved me from the gas chamber” says Helfgott.
Meanwhile, his mother and 8-year-old sister Lusia had been rounded up, along with over 500 other people, and were locked in the synagogue for two weeks. On Sunday, December 20, 1942, they were all taken out and shot; 53 of the remaining Jews, including two of Helfgott’s uncles, were marched to the cemetery and shot in the back of the head. The ghetto was finally liquidated in July 1943, and in
November 1944, Helfgott, and later his father, still in the ghetto, were deported to a labor camp that manufactured army tents, and then to the Buchenwald concentration camp. At the same time, his younger sister Mala was sent to Ravensbruck, a camp for women, and later to the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp.
Ben and his father were due to be sent as slave laborers to the Schlieben concentration camp, in an eastern German town where antitank weapons were being manufactured.
“My number was 94790 and my father was 94830,” Ben recalls. “My number was called out and I was told to move away. My father’s number was not read out and I tried to run to him, but was stopped by the SS guards. I never saw him again. I was later told by a survivor that their group was sent on a death march on the way to Theresienstadt and my father was shot down while trying to escape.”
The conditions at Schlieben were the most difficult he had experienced. “Hunger was overpowering,” he says. “Brothers, fathers and sons would fight over a morsel of bread. People aged 18 to 30 were working all day on 200 calories, and they were the first to die of hunger and exhaustion. Two people slept on wooden planks measuring less than a meter long. We wore the same clothes for five months and were filthy, skeletal, lice-ridden and in rags.”
With the war drawing to a close and the Germans sensing defeat in the air, Ben was transferred again, this time to Theresienstadt. The date was April 21, 1945.
Show of strength
Helfgott was liberated from Theresienstadt on May 9. He managed to make his way to Prague, where he fell in with a group of Jewish youngsters. He remembers the ample quantities of food and rowing for several days on the Vltava River, which slowly started to restore his strength. “It was heaven,” he says. At this time the Central British Fund (now World Jewish Relief) managed to get permission from the British Home Office for 1,000 Jewish boys and girls to be admitted to Britain. The story of this campaign has been told by Sir
Martin Gilbert in his book “The Boys,” published in 1996.
Fifteen-year-old Ben Helfgott reached Britain in the first group of 300 children. Subsequently, he managed to arrange for his sister Mala, who had been taken to Sweden from Bergen-Belsen, to join him in Britain.
Ben, who had had no schooling at all before the age of 15 , was admitted to Plaistow Grammar School in East London, knowing barely a word of English. After graduating from school, he went to the University of Southampton, where he studied economics and history. In 2003, the university gave him an honorary doctorate, which was followed by another this year from the Institute of Education, University of London, for his contributions to Holocaust education and work on behalf of survivors.
After arriving in Britain, and even prior to seeing the London Olympic Games of 1948, he soon became involved in the British sporting world and helped set up the Primrose Jewish Youth Club in London. The club was founded in 1947 by the young survivors of the Holocaust who had come under the auspices of the Central British Fund, and had been allowed to settle in Britain on the understanding that after recuperation they would then leave although where to was never spelled out.
Financed only by private donations from Jewish organizations the British government did not contribute anything the club, which continued until 1955, provided a venue for social, sporting and cultural activities.
Ben received British citizenship in 1951. Attracted to sports of all kinds, including rugby, table tennis, field athletics, wrestling and gymnastics, he eventually concentrated on weight lifting after he had come across a group of hefty young men lifting weights. “I asked if I could try and I lifted 140 pounds above my head,” he recalls. “They were amazed and said I should take it up competitively.”
While working for a paper company and later for Great Universal Stores, he won the British lightweight title in 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1958. He competed in the world weight lifting championships from 1954 to 1960, and captained the British weight lifting team in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne and again in Rome, four years later. He won the gold medal in the lightweight category in the Maccabiah Games of 1950, 1953 and 1957.
Helfgott retired from competitive athletics in 1961 and since then has devoted a large part of his life to the cause of Holocaust survivors and restitution. In May 2012, he met with the English football team on their way to the European Championships in Krakow, Poland, where they were due to visit Auschwitz, and told them his story. Since 1988, he has been a vice chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and for nearly 50 years was chairman of the 45 Aid Society for Holocaust Survivors in the U.K. He is also president of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and of the Yad Vashem Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which he chaired for 20 years.
He was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 1999 for services to the community, and the Polish Knights Cross, Order of Merit, and Commanders Cross, Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, for his work for reconciliation between Poles and Jews.
Ben and his wife Arza, who was born in Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), were married in 1966. They have three sons and nine grandchildren and live in Harrow, north of London.
Helfgott first met Chaim Chesler, in 2000, in connection with his Claims Conference work, when Chesler was treasurer of the Jewish Agency. When Chesler founded Limmud FSU – a Russian-language version of Limmud, the popular Jewish informal-learning conference – some six years ago, he invited Helfgott to speak at Limmud events about his Holocaust experiences and his work for survivors.
There is a particular poignancy regarding his appearance at the recent Limmud FSU event in Upper Nazareth, held on the theme of sport and devoted, in part, to the Olympic experience and to the memory of the 11 Israeli athletes slaughtered 40 years ago at the Munich Olympics. Helfgott was in Munich on that disastrous September day, and had spent the previous evening in the company of the Israeli weight lifters and their coach, never dreaming that they would be murdered in cold blood just a few hours later.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Ben Helfgott’s life is that he bears no grudges or hatred. In an interview at Limmud with Yoram Dori, strategic adviser to President Shimon Peres, he said: “I feel no anger or resentment. I love people. After surviving the Holocaust, I decided to spend my adult life fostering the love of people for one another.
To spread the lessons of the Holocaust, at the center of which are the rejection of hatred and violence and the obligation to love, to respect differences. Democracy and peace are what is important in the world. Without them, our world is not a world.”
Helfgott attributes his outlook on life to his father, Moshe, who, nearly 70 years on from his death, remains his role model.
Shlomo Gur, the director of the Israeli office of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, says, “Ben Helfgott exemplifies the triumph of mind over matter. From the lowest depths to which mankind could sink, he rose to the elevated heights of an Olympic athlete, and has maintained his humanity and empathy for others throughout.”
Full disclosure: Asher Weill shared a tent with Ben Helfgott when they both represented Great Britain in the 1957 Maccabiah Games.