Capturing Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott’s ‘essence’ on film

Capturing Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott’s ‘essence’ on film

Jenni Frazer reviews a documentary exploring the remarkable story of one survivor who has devoted his life to telling others about the Holocaust

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Unravelling the past: The film explores the life of Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott,
Unravelling the past: The film explores the life of Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott,

In what could be any suburban kitchen, two parents are arguing — with evident love and affection — with their grown-up son. The audience watching the film is laughing with delighted recognition.

But this is not just any suburban kitchen: it is the home of the recently knighted Sir Ben Helfgott and his wife Arza.

The grown-up is their son Maurice, who has been the driving force behind a remarkable film, Ben, A Bar and A Bit Of Weight, which premiered this week and tells the story of his father’s life.

Ben Helfgott is possibly Britain’s best-known living Holocaust survivor. But this film, made for the Helfgott family and shown for the first time at JW3 on Wednesday, shows a different aspect to the patriarch: the bereaved teen who arrived in Britain aged 16 and through sheer force of will, remade himself.

Remarkably, first he became an Olympic athlete and champion weightlifter, then in later years, a successful businessman.

At 50, the film tells us, he closed his business and devoted the rest of his life to telling the story of the Holocaust, a task he set himself because he says he owes it to those who did not survive.

The film was directed by Guy Natanel and produced by Laura Granditer, working to an almost impossible brief set for them by Maurice Helfgott, the eldest of the three Helfgott sons.

Unravelling the past: The film explores the life of Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott,, pictured here with his son Nathan

He wanted them, he said, to “capture Ben’s essence” — and the resulting documentary certainly does its best to achieve that.

Sir Ben is now 88 and perhaps the first surprise of the film — particularly for those who know him only by reputation — is the strength and vigour shown by the younger Ben Helfgott in a welter of family films taken over the years.

Here he is debating “forgiveness” on TV in a panel that includes the broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy; here he is showing a group of young people round his hometown in Poland, painting vivid pictures in words, as he speaks of where his mother and sister were arrested and eventually taken to be shot.

But the film-makers take a bold decision in how they want to tell Ben’s story before his arrival in Britain.

They decide to film his nine grandchildren, who are all totally familiar with what happened to their much-loved grandfather.

With unselfconscious charm the grandchildren, ranging in age from late teens to the youngest at six or seven, unravel Ben’s Holocaust experience, and how he did not know that his sister Mala had survived.

But “Auntie Mala” — Mala Tribich, herself a dedicated Holocaust education campaigner — did indeed survive and was in the audience, together with Enfield North MP Joan Ryan, chair of the Labour Friends of Israel, and the Conservative peer Lord Pickles — as they laughed and cried in equal measure watching the archive footage.

Some of the most fascinating material was footage from the 1956 Olympics, showing a young Ben weightlifting or marching with the British squad in Melbourne.

As for the film’s title, that comes from his 2007 appearance on Desert Island Discs, in which he chose “a bar and a bit of weight” as his island luxury.

But as the film shows, Sir Ben Helfgott doesn’t really need the equipment: he exercises religiously every day, and spends the rest of his time doing what he does best – bearing witness for those who cannot.

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