We wouldn’t be here without World Jewish Relief, now we’ll continue its mission

Maurice and Sir Ben Helfgott
Maurice and Sir Ben Helfgott

My Dad, Ben, was one of “The Boys” – 732 survivors of the Holocaust who were brought to the UK after the Shoah in 1945. If it wasn’t for World Jewish Relief – the British Jewish organisation that conceived, funded and delivered that programme for child orphan refugees – he, me and my brothers and our children wouldn’t be here today. So, it’s particularly poignant for me to have been invited this week to succeed the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield, as Chairman of that very organisation which today, inspired by its incredible history, works to actively combat poverty and disadvantage in the Jewish community and far beyond.

The magnificent film, The Windermere Children, currently showing on BBC iPlayer, dramatises effectively how World Jewish Relief gave The Boys the love, safety, skills and resources needed to thrive, despite the unimaginable start they had in life.

Dad is now quite well known as ‘Sir Ben’- recognised for his accomplishments in Captaining the British Olympic Weightlifting team and for many decades of international leadership in Holocaust Remembrance and Education.  But it wasn’t always the case.  I recently read his meticulous file in the WJR archive where we found a letter from Ben to the legendary programme architect, Leonard Montefiore. Dad explained that despite his very best efforts, he was finding it hard to persuade employers to give him a chance because of his “thick European accent” and requested help with personal introductions.

I was very moved therefore that – motivated by Jewish tradition that the highest form of charity is to help someone find a means to look after themselves, and inspired by its history of supporting refugees like my father to rebuild lives in the UK – World Jewish Relief responded to the Syrian refugee crisis by applying its expertise in livelihood development.  Its Specialist Training and Employment Programme (STEP) is today the largest provider of employment support to Resettled Refugees in the UK, and widely recognized by Government for delivering excellent results.

A couple of years ago, my youngest son Nicky and I joined an organised Bar Mitzvah trip to Chisinau (Kishinev) in Moldova, once a thriving city with 70,000 Jews.  We saw first-hand how vital World Jewish Relief’s support is for older people still living in one of the poorest countries in Europe. I recall meeting Sacha, who was perhaps the last Auschwitz survivor still alive in Moldova. World Jewish Relief had recently fixed her roof, enabling her to keep out the biting cold, and helped her to attend the local Jewish community centre. World Jewish Relief supports 14,000 older people in Eastern Europe, victims of Nazi persecution or impoverished due to the collapse of the Soviet economy.

Over the years, World Jewish Relief has responded to international emergencies on behalf of the UK Jewish community, delivering urgent disaster relief through 60 local partners around the world. Successful appeals have been launched for high-profile emergencies, but sadly disasters also regularly unfold that do not make international headlines.  Just last month, Sulawesi in Indonesia was struck by a devastating earthquake and World Jewish Relief is leading an emergency response there right now through its local partner on the ground, IBU Foundation.

My Dad’s experience of appreciating being helped when he needed it and then helping others, continues to inspire me. As does his commitment to our Jewish Community and his determination to contribute to the world.  In Hillel’s famous words: If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if only for myself, what am I?  In World Jewish Relief the British Jewish Community can be very proud of a vital and effective humanitarian organisation which for 88 years has espoused those values and positively impacted hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide.

World Jewish Relief was previously known as the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF) and was established in 1933 to help rescue Jews from Nazi-Europe, succeeding in bringing around 65,000 people to safety in Britain. If you would like to access your family’s records, contact

https://www.worldjewishrelief.org/about-us/your-family-history

About the Author
Maurice Helfgott is Chairman, World Jewish Relief
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