Sir Ben Helfgott was an extraordinary human being and his passing is a profound loss, not only for his family and our country, but for our nation’s moral conscience.
During his life, Sir Ben endured unimaginable pain and suffering – the murder of his parents and younger sister at the hands of the Nazis, the horrors of Buchenwald and two other concentration camps, and the brutal killing of so many he knew during the Holocaust.
But despite the adversity and anguish that was so cruelly visited upon him, he did not succumb to despair, bitterness or hatred. Instead, he drew on his immense physical and mental strength – first to achieve personal success as the captain of the British Olympic weightlifting team, and one of only two Holocaust survivors to ever compete at a Games, and then to become a powerful voice for education, inclusion, equality and peace.
As someone who had the pleasure of meeting Sir Ben many times – and working alongside him on the panel to decide the winning design for the national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre – it’s no surprise to me that his inspiring example earned him a reputation as one of Britain’s greatest Jews.
Sir Ben was small in size, but a giant of a personality. He was humble, gregarious, and good-natured, and he possessed a sharp wit and sparkling sense of humour that meant he would often become the centre of attention at gatherings and events. But he was also resolute in his conviction that future generations must learn about the darkness of the Shoah so that such an evil could never again be allowed to take root.
We were blessed to welcome Sir Ben as a speaker at City Hall’s annual Holocaust Memorial Day service and through his outstanding work with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, re-telling his story as a survivor, he played a pivotal role in preserving a grim part of our past that all of us has a duty to remember. Indeed, as the Holocaust slowly moves from living memory to the pages of history, it’s more important than ever that we recall Sir Ben’s life and cherish his legacy.
One particular aspect of that legacy that I admire deeply stems from the focus and urgency Sir Ben placed on strengthening the bonds between our communities. Sir Ben was a bridge builder – an advocate for dialogue, mutual understanding and coexistence. He knew that unity was key to overcoming division and that the best way to inoculate our communities against intolerance and anti-Semitism was to break down barriers and bring people together so they could appreciate their common humanity.
His tireless commitment to this cause, and to keeping alive the story of the Holocaust, made him a great Brit and a great force for good in our times. London joins our Jewish brothers and sisters in mourning him and our thoughts and prayers are with Sir Ben’s family, friends and loved ones at this difficult time.
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