The remarkable life of Ben Helfgott: A family man, Olympian and Holocaust survivor

The remarkable life of Ben Helfgott: A family man, Olympian and Holocaust survivor

Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust reflects on a new biography by Michael Freedland detailing the extraordinary life of Ben Helfgott

Holocaust Educational Trust CEO Karen Pollock with survivor, Olympian and educator Ben Helfgott
Holocaust Educational Trust CEO Karen Pollock with survivor, Olympian and educator Ben Helfgott

“There is nothing usual about Ben Helfgott.” The opening words of Michael Freedland’s new biography of Ben Helfgott MBE encapsulate how many people feel about this exceptional man.

A family man, Olympian and Holocaust survivor, Ben’s life is an inspiration.

Through his work as a Trustee of the Holocaust Educational Trust over the last three decades, I’ve had the privilege to work closely with Ben but I am still astounded when I think of all he has endured and all he has achieved.

Freedland takes us through Ben’s incredible life, beginning with his childhood in Piotrkow, Poland where Ben excelled in school and enjoyed racing his playmates in the town’s streets.

After the Nazi invasion, the family were forced into a crowded ghetto and Ben lost his mother Sara and sister Luisa, they were led away and murdered in the surrounding woods.

He witnessed the deportation of family members to death camps and in 1944 was sent to Buchenwald.

By the time Ben was liberated in 1945, he and his sister Mala were the family’s sole survivors.

Ben with his sister Mala

90% of the Jews from Piotrkow had been killed. Freedland shows that what was once a thriving Jewish community had been reduced to nothing.

Ben’s father was shot on a death march and his loss shapes much of Freedland’s narrative.

Moishe Helfgott not only cared for his own family but also smuggled food into the ghetto to help keep others alive.

Young Ben Helfgott

He was a brave leader whose death weeks before liberation remains incomprehensible to Ben.

Ben’s admiration for his father has helped guide his outlook on life and this comes through powerfully in the book.

Ben is a loving and strong father, an illustration of what his own father instilled in him.

Ben describes his three sons as menschen – a title I am sure they would bestow upon him too.

A valuable aspect of this work is the chance for us to read about Ben as a family man as well as a survivor.

There are some entertaining chapters on what it’s like to live with such a determined person, Freedland shows him as a powerful personality, adored by his wife Arza.

Freedland describes how after arriving in the UK as one of ‘The Boys’ Ben studied at a grammar school, catching up with, and surpassing many of his classmates. Moreover, a book about Ben wouldn’t be complete without mention of his Olympic career.

Ben competed in the 1950 Maccabiah Games, in his chosen sport of weightlifting. He won gold.

I remain amazed at his being able to do so just a few years after liberation.

Ben weightlifting in his younger days

Ben Captained the British Olympic weightlifting team and is the only Holocaust survivor to have competed in 2 Olympics. He still enjoys giving me fitness tips at the age of 88!

I recently spoke with five-time Olympic Champion Sir Steve Redgrave. I told him about Ben and all he has achieved. He was in awe, like all who hear Ben’s story.

This biography also enables the reader to get to know Ben as a campaigner for Holocaust education, and a leader in the survivor community.

Ben has led the way in Holocaust remembrance in the UK, playing key roles in various Holocaust remembrance organisations.

Just last year, the Holocaust Educational Trust presented Ben with a Lifetime Achievement Award, recognising his tireless dedication to ensuring the darkest period of history is never forgotten.

Story of One of The Boys. Michael Freedland’s book about Ben Helfgott

Ben is a spokesperson for survivors and in 1963 established the ’45 Aid Society. This organisation, as Freedland puts it, would help The Boys turn into The Men they became.

It is dedicated to not only helping survivors, but also others in need. Ben is now Honorary President and has shown how “positive things can happen against the background of the Holocaust.”

Through Freedland’s accessible style, readers will find much inspiration in this book’s pages.

Although there is still much more to say, I’m delighted that there is now a full-length biography of Ben, so more people can come to know the man I so admire.

Ben began weightlifting by simply saying “I can do that.” He has certainly proved this and more. His is certainly no ordinary life.

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