Sir Ben Helfgott

Sir Ben Helfgott

Ben was born in Piotrków, Poland and was nine years old at the outbreak of the Second World War. Very soon after the German occupation of Poland, Ben and his family had to move into the ghetto in his hometown, the first to be established by the Nazis. Living conditions in the ghetto were terrible, with families living in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions.

In August 1942, when Ben was 12 years old, his father secured him a job at the local glass factory outside of the ghetto. Soon after, in October, Ben went to work on the night shift. After work he and his fellow workers prepared to return to the ghetto but found that it was sealed, and people were being rounded up. In one week almost 22,000 of the 24,000 Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto were deported to the Treblinka death camp, including Ben’s grandfather.

After the deportations, only those Jews with work passes were permitted to remain in the ghetto. Ben’s mother and two sisters did not have work permits and had to remain in hiding. The Nazis announced that they knew that Jews were hiding illegally in the ghetto and declared an amnesty for those who came forward. Ben’s mother and youngest sister, Luisa, were among the 520 Jews who voluntarily came out of hiding. All who came forward were taken to the woods and shot.

In August 1944, the ghetto was liquidated. Ben and his father were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, while his sister Mala and their cousin Ann were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. After two weeks at Buchenwald, Ben was separated from his father and sent to Schlieben camp, before being transported to Terezín in Czechoslovakia. Three weeks after arriving at Terezín, Ben was liberated by Russian troops. He later learnt that his father had been shot a few days before the end of the war as he made a bid to escape from a death march.

After liberation, Ben came to the UK with a group of child survivors known as ‘the Boys’. In 1947 he was reunited with his sister, Mala. In 1948, Ben began weightlifting and entered the Maccabiah Games which were held in Israel in 1950. He won a gold medal. Ben represented Britain in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. He was captain of the British weightlifting team on all these occasions.

Ben remains dedicated to Holocaust education and is an honorary patron of the Holocaust Educational Trust. Ben is also President of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and Chairman and founder of the 45 Aid Society, a charitable organisation formed by ‘the Boys’ who came to the UK after the war. In June 2018 he was awarded a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.