In the first of our blogs commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott MBE tells us about his journey to Britain following his liberation from Theresienstadt concentration camp.
When I was liberated in Theresienstadt in the early morning of 9th May 1945, I was emaciated and in a state of exhaustion. It took me a while to awake from my five and a half year nightmare. As long as I had been struggling for survival and had lived from hour to hour, I had rarely entertained any thought of the enormity of my loss or about my future. It gradually dawned upon me that I was at last free and that I was alone.
I was also in a state of shock as I had just heard of my father’s death. I had been cruelly separated from him in mid-December – only five months and a lifetime away! He was shot a few days before my liberation whilst trying to escape from a Death march to Theresienstadt. Now the coincidence of me gaining my freedom and the news of my father’s death caused me to despair rather than rejoice.
A few days later, having recovered some of my strength, I left for Prague where I met many other survivors. I fell in love with Prague instantly; I was like a bird just released from its cage. My excitement knew no bounds; when the war started I was nearly 10 years old and now at the age of 15, and after all of my ordeal, I found myself in what seemed to be the most beautiful city in the world. However, as idyllic as my life seemed, I had the nagging thought and vain hope that my father may have survived. He was a very courageous and resourceful man and was only 39 years old. I knew if he was alive he would return to Piotrkow, our home town and so I decided to go there. I had no illusions that my mother and 8 year old sister had survived as in 1942 they were both incarcerated in the Piotrkow Synagogue for 2 weeks before being taken out into the woods and shot together with 530 others.
In Piotrkow, there was no trace of my father although I did meet up with two aunts. I also saw the aunt of my younger cousin Gershon who had been unable to leave Theresienstadt because he was in such poor health. His aunt asked me to bring him back to her so I returned to Theresienstadt. When I got there, I found Gershon still in hospital. Thought he was emaciated and extremely weak, we made the decision to return home together.
Our journey required a change of train in Czestochowa and it was there that we were apprehended by two Polish ‘officers’. They led us away to a quiet isolated part of town and prepared to shoot us. Fortunately, they responded to our pleas and after putting away their revolvers, released us and left. We were nearer to death in a free Poland than at any time under the Nazis!
In Piotrkow, I learned that my sister Mala had survived and was in Bergen-Belsen. My journey to meet up with her took me once again to Theresienstadt and whilst there I learned of a group going to England within a few days. On reaching Pilsen, I discovered that all lines to Hanover were disrupted and consequently the journey to see Mala was impossible.
From my early childhood I had been an Anglophile; my father had always been in awe of his suits made of fabric from England and the cutlery in our home (of which my mother was extremely proud) was made in Sheffield. In addition to this, I had been a keen stamp collector and it seemed to me that all the maps in the stamp album were coloured pink! I therefore resolved to return immediately to Theresienstadt so as not to miss the opportunity of travelling to England with my friends.
I arrived in Carlisle on 14th August 1945 with 300 other teenagers, many of whom had been liberated together with me. We stayed in Windermere until December 1945. When we arrived at the hostel in Windermere, we received fresh clothing and each of us was allocated a tiny room with a chest of drawers, a wardrobe, a chair and a bed; it was the first time in three years that I slept under clean sheets and had the luxury of cleaning my teeth with a toothbrush. It was sheer bliss! We soon settled down and learned English, Maths and History. We played football and volleyball, went swimming in Lake Windermere and on outings amidst the magnificent scenery of the Lake District.
To an observer, we appeared happy and contented and indeed during the day when we were together this was indeed the case. However, during the night when we were alone we had to contend with our trauma and our ghosts, but we were on the path towards rehabilitation.