OPINION: Ben was the beating heart of Britain’s Holocaust education and remembrance

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OPINION: Ben was the beating heart of Britain’s Holocaust education and remembrance

We owe it to Sir Ben Helfgott and his fellow survivors to ensure that Holocaust education in this country is strengthened, writes Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl

Sir Ben Helfgott (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust),
Sir Ben Helfgott (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust),

Our entire community is in mourning at the passing of Sir Ben Helfgott, a man whose greatness was unmatched. He experienced humanity at its worst, and emerged from that to live his life as an example of humanity at its best. His parents and a sister were cruelly taken from him; he would go on to raise three exceptional sons, each with families of their own.

Most of us can only imagine the strength of such a man. His physical strength, certainly – little more than a decade after he came to this country, at which point he described himself as a “human skeleton”, he was representing Britain at the Olympics as a champion weightlifter. But this was dwarfed by his inner strength, having lived his life the way he did despite the horrors he had faced.

In 1945, as part of a group of 732 children, Sir Ben came to this country. That group would become known as “The Boys”, and they would go on to found the’45 Aid Society, the organisation which helps the survivors and their families. Sir Ben, as its founder and chair, represented the ’45 Aid Society as a deputy for many years, and it was a great honour for the Board, and for myself personally, to have him as a part of our organisation.

Marie van der Zyl

He was at the heart of Holocaust Education and Remembrance in this country, both through the initiatives of the ’45 Aid Society itself as well as via the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and Holocaust Educational Trust. He served as Honorary President of the former and as an Honorary Patron of the latter. He would also serve as Chair of the Institute of Polish Jewish Studies, as well as being an integral part of the Claims Conference negotiating team.

He would later serve the Claims Conference as a Special Advisor to the President. The Claims Conference is taking place again this week in New York, and I cannot begin to describe the sorrow with which this news will be greeted there.  He was also a delegate to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. With his passing, there now no more Holocaust survivors serving as delegates to the IHRA.

It is no exaggeration to say that Sir Ben was one of the greatest members of the British Jewish community. His passing has sent a tremor through our community, followed by a sense of incalculable loss.

We can sometimes take for granted the impressive accessibility to Holocaust education that we are fortunate enough to have in this country, just as we can sometimes take for granted the incredible privilege we have of being able to hear, first-hand, from Holocaust survivors.

The truth is that Holocaust Education in this country was not something which naturally came into being. Survivors like Sir Ben worked tirelessly to ensure that the Holocaust would not be forgotten, giving their time and effort to ensure that future generations would hear and understand the terrible consequences of blind hate.

We owe it to Sir Ben and to his fellow survivors to ensure that Holocaust education in this country is strengthened. We must honour their memories by ensuring that their experiences are never forgotten.

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