Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott said he was “choked” after hearing he is to be knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Voice cracking with emotion, the iconic Holocaust educator was reacting as news broke of the awards, with other prominent names – including historian Simon Schama, philanthropist Lloyd Dorfman and MP Louise Ellman – also made a dame.
“I didn’t expect it,” said Sir Ben. “I couldn’t believe it. I’m choked. Obviously I’m very pleased. All my life I’ve worked to educate about the Holocaust and will continue to do so.”
He was integral to efforts to establish a national Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, serving as the president of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and was a member of the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission, whose work led to the development of a new national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens.
Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of HMDT congratulated Ben, who is a founding trustee, and Honorary President of the organisation, calling him “an extraordinary individual”.
After experiencing unthinkable pain and loss when he was young, he has dedicated so much time to making sure the suffering he endured will not be repeated.”
There really is no one quite like Ben. His impact cannot be overstated. Everyone at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is so grateful to Ben for his support, friendship and contribution to our work, and I am personally grateful for his advice and guidance.”
Ben is also President of the 45 Aid Society for Holocaust survivors, having served as its chairman for over half a century, and in 2017 received the lifelong dedication award from the Holocaust Education Trust for his work with schools over 30 years.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: “Ben has worked tirelessly, over many decades, to encourage community cohesion and combat intolerance and hatred. He has used his public profile as a Holocaust survivor to ensure that Holocaust commemoration has remained on the national agenda.”
Congratulating Ben Helfgott, Karen Pollock Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “This is marvellous news and so deserved.”
Soon after he was liberated from the concentration camps, Ben knew that the story of what happened to him, his family and the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis must be told.”
He helped shape Holocaust education in the UK, campaigned for a memorial in London and for a national day to remember the Holocaust.”
Ben is a leader, an inspiration and our hero. He is an extraordinary man. Mazel Tov, Sir Ben!”
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Also honoured with a Knights Bachelor is Professor Simon Schama, whose recent work includes the BBC’s ‘The Story of the Jews,’ a five-part 3,000-year exploration of the Jewish people seen and read by millions.
Describing him as “a natural storyteller,” the Cabinet Office paid tribute to his prolific work, including more than 40 documentaries and books translated into 15 languages on topics such as slavery, the American Revolution, the history of Britain and the French Revolution.
Also newly-knighted is a Travelex founder Lloyd Dorfman, who the Government described as “a highly significant UK philanthropist over many years”. Chairman of the Prince’s Trust and of Prince’s Trust International, he serves on the board of the Royal Opera House, the Royal Academy Trust, BAFTA, the Community Security Trust (CST) and Jewish culture centre JW3. He has also donated generously to Westminster Abbey and Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Speaking to Jewish News, Dorfman said: “Through all my philanthropic activity, I have tried to give time as well as money. Whether in the Jewish community, arts, education or welfare, the goal is to enable people to fulfil their potential, express their creativity and help the vulnerable. It continues to be a privilege and a pleasure to be involved in philanthropy and to try to make a difference.”
Becoming Dame Louise Ellman is the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, who is president of the Jewish Labour Movement, vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel and chair of the All Party Britain Israel Parliamentary Group. From the backbenches she has repeatedly spoken out against anti-Semitism in the party, and last month joined fellow Liverpool MP Luciana Berger in calling for a second referendum on Brexit.
Speaking to Jewish News, she said “It was quite a surprise to hear! I’m delighted to receive it.”
Among those awarded an MBE for voluntary service to the Armed Forces was Col. Martin Newman, who said: “It’s amazing to receive such recognition for doing a job that you actually enjoy. Working with our Jewish personnel in HM Forces has been an honour and a privilege. We must support our men and women who strive to maintain their Jewish identity and culture while serving in often difficult and dangerous circumstances. They’re the ones who really deserve our recognition.”
Newly-honoured Commanders of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) were Jonathan Haskel, Professor of Economics at Imperial College London, who has just been appointed to the Bank of England’s influential Monetary Policy Committee, and The Honourable Hannah Mary Rothschild. A writer and filmmaker who is the eldest child of Lord Jacob Rothschild, her recent work includes a fly-on-the-wall documentary of Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Peter Mandelson, filmed in the run-up to the 2010 general election.
Leslie Kay, 85, received a British Empire Medal for services to older people in Manchester’s Jewish community. He said: “I’m delighted to receive it, but I regard it as an award for the organisation, not me. Anything that sheds a light on the Jewish community and all the wonderful work we’re doing is to be welcomed. I’ve been involved for 60 years and – health permitting – plan to continue helping.”
The British Empire Medal (BEM) is sometimes called the “working class” gong. It was scrapped in 1993 but revived by David Cameron in 2013 to recognise “the dedication and hard work so many provide to their communities … awarded to ‘ordinary people’ for example: road cleaners, bee-keepers and scout leaders”.
Unlike other honours, the BEM is not awarded by the Queen or Prince of Wales, or at the Palace, but by Lord-Lieutenants, who are the representatives of the Crown for each county in the UK, as it is seen as more of a community award.
Among the other recipients of the BEM was Jill Todd for her dedicated work in education around Tower Hamlets. A former chair of the West London Synagogue who has just taken over chairmanship of Leo Baeck College, she said: “I am genuinely proud to join the legion of road cleaners, bee-keepers and scout leaders, real workers – those who make a genuine contribution to their local area and who have earned this.”