Tributes have begun to flow after the death of the Holocaust survivor, Sir Ben Helfgott, 93, arguably the man who was one of the driving forces behind bringing recognition of the genocide of the Jewish people to the British public.
He was also a former champion weightlifter, one of only two Holocaust survivors to later take part in the Olympic Games.
A statement placed on social media by the 45 Aid Society confirmed on Friday:”It is with the deepest sadness and sorrow that we have to share the news that we’ve lost the founder and father of 45 Aid Society Sir Ben Helfgott.
“Ben was one of the greatest ambassadors for the Boys and, indeed, for all Holocaust survivors.
“We wish long life to his wife Arza, his sister Mala and her family and his sons, Maurice, Michael and Nathan and their families. May Ben’s memory be a blessing.”
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote:”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.”
Lord Eric Pickles also tweeted:”Small in stature but a giant of a man.
“A British Olympian, the driving force behind Holocaust Remembrance, an inspiration to many. A regular attendee at The IHRA, he will be missed by his many friends around the world. My thoughts and love to his family. May his memory be a blessing.”
In a statement the Board of Deputies said:”“Today we mourn the passing of a man whose greatness was unparalleled. ”
The United Synagogue said:”We were devastated to learn from his family this morning that Sir Ben Helfgott, Olympian, Educator, Survivor and proud member of Wembley United Synagogue has passed away.
“Ben was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary history who despite all he went through went on to love an extraordinary life.”
Karen Pollock, 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.”
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s Laura Marks added:”Ben taught me, guided me, scolded me and laughed with me.
“He personified the spirit of survival – making Britain his new home and family yet never forgetting the lessons from the past. We are diminished by the loss yet strengthened by his memory.”
World Jewish Relief’s chief executive Paul Anticoni said: “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.”
Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust tweeted:”Terribly sad news today about the passing of Sir Ben Helfgott, a truly inspirational man in so many ways.”
The tough and diminutive Sir Ben, 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, near Lodz. His family comprised his parents, his grandmother and his two sisters, and his recollections were of a happy home
His parents, he said, had been concerned about their future as Jews in Poland as news grew throughout the 1930s of the potential threat posed by Hitler’s Germany. As early as 1935 they managed to get permits to leave for Palestine — but his grandmother did not want to go, so the family stayed in Poland.
On September 1 1939, the ten-year-old Ben Helfgott was enjoying a holiday with his parents and sisters, visiting his grandfather, aunt and uncle in his mother’s home town. He recalled that his mother wanted to reach Piotrkow in time to prepare for Shabbat, so the family began the return journey at seven in the morning. The usual trip home took about two hours, but on that day they did not reach home until six in the evening. As they travelled, they heard bombs falling and sirens wailing.
After a brief attempt to stay in a neighbouring town, the family returned to Piotrkrow. Like other Jews, the Helfgotts were ordered to move into a ghetto, the first to be established by the Nazis in Europe. Thousands of people were herded into cramped living areas, scavenging as best they could for food.
Ben’s father organised the smuggling of food into the ghetto, using imaginative ways to defy Nazi restrictions. Ben himself, blond-haired, found he could pass for a non-Jewish Pole and spent a great deal of time outside the ghetto, ditching the Star of David armband which Jews were forced to wear.
After three fraught years inside the ghetto, during which time he worked in a glass factory outside its walls, Ben and his fellow workers returned from work to find the ghetto had been sealed. Jews were being rounded up for ‘resettlement” — deportation to the east, to the death camps.
Ben’s younger sister, Luisa, and his mother, were murdered; Ben himself was sent to Buchenwald in 1944 while his other sister, Mala, was deported to Ravensbruck with their cousin, Ann. Ben was separated from his father in Buchenwald, and he himself 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.
So at 15, Ben Helfgott was an orphan. He had found his cousin, Gienek, in Theresienstadt and the two boys initially decided to travel back to Poland. But after being greeted with racial abuse — and almost being murdered by Polish army officers — the pair decided to accept an invitation to go to Britain instead.
With an initial cohort of 300 young Jews, Ben Helfgott arrived in Britain and was first sent to Windermere in the Lake District. This was the beginning of the intense friendships that characterised Ben’s entire life, and the subsequent creation of “The Boys” which morphed into the groundbreaking 45 Aid Society, the charity with which Ben became most associated.
It was when he was 18 and about to go to Southampton University, that Ben spotted some people on Hampstead Heath lifting weights. Naturally sporty and athletic, he asked if he could try — and to astonishment, he lifted 180 lbs with ease. Ben began training with passion and just a few short years after arriving in Britain as “a walking skeleton”, he won a gold medal at the 1950 Maccabiah Games in Israel.
By 1956 he was representing Britain at the Olympic Gams in Melbourne. Two years later he won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and in 1960 won another bronze at the Olympic Games in Rome. He was captain of the British weightlifting team on all these occasions.
Reunited with his sister, Mala — who had been sent to Sweden after liberation — Ben focused on rebuilding his family. With his wife, Arza, he had three sons and a devoted clutch of grandchildren.
All the while he spoke repeatedly about cultural integration and peace, and was widely admired for his continued open hand of warmth and friendship towards the Polish people. He received many awards during his long life. but anyone who encountered him will have an abiding image of the five foot five Ben on the dance floor, as he and the Boys of the 45 Aid Society celebrated life with vigour and relish.
In further tributes the European Jewish Congress tweeted:” His strength, resilience, and commitment to Holocaust education touched the lives of many. We will remember his extraordinary journey & his inspirational achievements in the world of sports.”
The Wiener Holocaust Library added:”We are deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Sir Ben Helfgott, a remarkable man who made an indelible impact on all those who met him and worked with him. His lifelong dedication and outstanding achievements were truly inspiring.”
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