Photo: Sir Ben Helfgott at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics officially representing Britain, unofficially representing the Jewish people who had experienced its near-total European destruction the decade before.
650 words / 3 minute read
Sir Ben Helfgott didn’t just lift weights, he moved mountains. He represented Great Britain in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics and was Britain’s lightweight champion in 1955, 1956 and 1958, “lightweight” being a category not a characterisation. There was nothing lightweight about Sir Ben. He was a compact yet determined force to be reckoned with. It was this determination which may well have been fired in the ovens of the Holocaust when his mother and sister were shot in the forest near their hometown of Piotrokow in Poland, his father shot trying to escape from a death march, and his own forced labour during his early teenage years.
Coming to Britain with a group of other orphaned Jewish children, 732 in all, Sir Ben was brought to Windermere in the Lake District where the group coalesced and maintain close connection to this day. In London they established the Primrose Club where the young survivors could meet and share an understanding of what they had come through that others could not begin to fathom.
The Primrose Club evolved into the ’45 Aid Society to be able to help its members and later as a charity to help others in need. Sir Ben was the Chairman and in no time Martin was pressed into being its President. I remember Ben sitting across from Martin’s desk waiting while Martin wrote his message for the annual journal. Regardless of what else Martin had in front of him, Ben was not going to leave until he had Martin’s remarks in his hand.
Martin was a sounding board for Ben’s ideas, dreams and challenges which ranged far beyond the remit of the ’45 Aid Society. Martin offered Ben an understanding ear and sound judgement, and always found time to support him while Ben became instrumental in Holocaust education nationally and represented survivors internationally at the Claims Conference and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
It was Ben who pressed Martin into writing the history of these orphaned children, known as “The Boys” (though there were girls among them). Martin’s book The Boys, Triumph Over Adversity was published in 1996, with a new edition last year. It tells Ben’s story along with many of these children, the trauma and loss they witnessed and experienced along with how they made their lives and contributed to our world. In Martin’s introduction, he writes of the book’s inception that Ben “was able, as chairman of their society, to exhort, cajole and encourage more than a hundred and fifty of his fellow-boys to send me their stories.” Martin goes on to describe “Every account which I received contained aspects of the Holocaust that are not to be found elsewhere: episodes, attitudes and reflections.”
In 1996, after Martin taught an MA course on the Holocaust, his students wanted to take a trip to the places they had studied. Martin organised and led the trip and asked who else but Ben to accompany them. That story is in Martin’s book Holocaust Journey, Travelling in Search of the Pas (which will see a new edition coming in January). It contains more of Ben’s story and what he found coming back to his hometown fifty years after the end of the war.
The last conversation I had with Ben was in his home, with his wife Arza and his survivor sister Mala Tribich a few years ago. His voice at that time was barely audible but his determination had not dimmed. He knew exactly what he was saying and I felt honoured by his trust.
The weights that Sir Ben Helfgott lifted during his nine decades in this life were not only the measurable ones, but also the immeasurable weights of loss and pain, ignorance and apathy, denial, corruption, greed and hatred. Through it all he was determined to make a difference, to remember, to educate, to honour and to be true to his values and his history. His determination, his vision, and its success left a lasting legacy that will make a difference to many generations now and to come. In this Sir Ben Helfgott was a true Olympian.
For more on Ben Helfgott: https://www.martingilbert.com/blog/we-have-attacked-adversity/
Read: The Boys