Ben Helfgott, triumphant survivor

There have been many tributes to Ben Helfgott who passed away last week but I would like to add my own to a man who was one of the most iconic holocaust survivors in the UK and throughout the Jewish world. His extraordinary life began in 1929 in Piotkrov, a small town in central Poland, just a few kilometres from the textile city of Lodz, where my own grandparents lived. Brought up in a Polish speaking environment he was caught in the maelstrom of the Holocaust, after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. His early adolescence was spent, in a series of concentration camps, of almost unimaginable cruelty until he was finally liberated by the Russians from Theresienstadt in 1945. 

Ben was a triumphant survivor in all senses of the word. Though weighing less than six stone when liberated, he went on to participate in the British weightlifting team, only eleven years later at the Melbourne Olympics and to captain it in the following Olympiad. But he was a survivor in a deeper sense as well. He never romanticised the holocaust and saw clearly the horrifying and degrading effect it had on everyone it touched. But he also never gave way to bitterness or hatred, and above all never lost his zest for life. 

He was brought over to the lake district in Britain in 1945 as member of a group of orphan holocaust survivors later known as the Boys. Once in Britain he rebuilt his life, building up a successful business and raising a wonderful family who shared in his universal popularity. When I was at the Board of Deputies one of my greatest pleasures was the annual dinner of the Boys, presided over by Ben, full of fun, humour and positivity. 

We were colleagues too in the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, in the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany and in the Institute of Polish Jewish Studies where he was once Chairman and then Life Patron. In all these it was a pleasure to work with him and he and his wife Arza became valued friends to my wife Naomi and myself. 

The Institute in particular, brought out the best in him. It looks with a clear eye at the ghastly details of the Holocaust and confronts the realities of Polish antisemitism before, during, and after World War II. But it nevertheless recalls also the acts of heroism and support from people and the institutions, like Zegota and its precursors, who at great personal risk managed to help Jews. After all, Poland has more Righteous Gentiles recognised by Yad Vashem than any other nation. 

Above all the Institute seeks to understand the lives of the Jews in Poland, the rich culture they created, their achievements in the arts, music, history, literature, science and philosophy, as well as in Jewish thought, law and mysticism. For centuries the Polish Jewish community was the largest and most productive in the world. Today a majority of world Jewry are descendants of Polish Jews. The history of Polish Jewry is about how Jews lived, not just about how they died. Ben epitomised their spirit and his life was an inspiration to all who met him.

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.