Ben Helfgott is not your usual idea of a weightlifter. He is also probably not your idea of a Holocaust survivor. If you think of the first being a tall, muscular figure, he breaks all the rules and represented his adopted Great Britain at two Olympic Games. Every day, at 87, he still practices with equipment that scares the life out of me – just to look at. The weights are almost hidden in his upstairs room, the one crammed with books and files, the number and diversity of which also made me blink.
He has never been taller than 5ft 3inches. Yet the muscles are there still. As for being a survivor, show me another one who likes Poles as much as this man born in the Polish small town of Piotrkow does. As for Germans, he says: “I am not going to blame anyone for the sins of their fathers.”
If you were to ask me why I decided to write his biography (Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of The Boys), there you have the answer. As a junior newspaper reporter (I won’t tell you when, but under no circumstances could I be called “junior”any more) I was taught to have an interest in everything that cropped up. Ben has to be a journalist’s gold-plated gift.
I first met Ben in 1983. Even then, I thought he would be a subject for a book – one very different from the usual writing I did about nostalgic show business figures, such as Al Jolson, who also became the subject of my first West End musical, or Fred Astaire, with whom I spent weeks working on both an authorised biography and a BBC radio series.
Yes, Ben Helfgott was going to be different and so was his story, which I began to pick up all those years ago on a trip to Auschwitz and Warsaw – the reason we were both there was the 40th anniversary commemoration of the Ghetto uprising.
And,yes, I had been told to be interested and try to write about anything – in those early days, even about flower shows and local weddings.
- Karen Pollock: The remarkable life of Ben Helfgott: A family man, Olympian and Holocaust survivor
- Win a copy of Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys
We talked, this little figure with the big history and I, during the 24 years of my BBC Radio London programme You Don’t Have To Be Jewish.
I interviewed many Holocaust survivors, but Ben stood out. Plainly, a survivor of Buchenwald and a list of other horror camps who then goes on to be an Olympic athlete after becoming a British citizen, was going to be exceptional.
I didn’t know how exceptional.
He is nothing less than obsessed with sport – of almost any kind (except swimming, which he was never able to enjoy or accept as seriously as most other athletic achievements).
We would sit in the lounge of his home in Harrow day after day (I estimated it would all take about a year; as it turned out, multiply that by three). He spoke colourfully about a subject for which there was no colour (except the blood of the Nazis’ millions of victims). He talked about working in factories, ill treated by Poles, labouring in terrible conditions without pay, although he denies being a slave labourer, which he undoubtedly was; about seeing lines of people going to the gas chambers.
The Shoah is still in his blood. The Games came and went. He doesn’t hide how hard his life always was. He knows, too, that he has been an example to a large tranche of Jews.
I asked his three sons if he was an egoist. No,they say, that was not it at all. People needed to know and he was the one to tell them. It was almost a crusade, to use a very un-Jewish term.
He read the book’s manuscript with the proverbial magnifying glass. There were constant phone calls, querying the tiniest detail. But that was purely to make sure there were no mistakes. Even if it took three years to achieve that.
The word for him comes naturally when you talk about a former athlete with an incredible gift of languages and a knowledge of the world.
He is, above all, a mensch.
- Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys is available from Vallentine Mitchell. Normally £20, it is available at the special price of £16.95 from their website, www.vmbooks.com using discount code JN18.
- Offer valid until 24 May 2018.
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