There is only one known concentration camp survivor who went on to become a two-time Olympian: Ben Helfgott, who captained the United Kingdom weightlifting team in the 1956 and 1960 Summer Games.
Born in Poland, Helfgott suffered the loss of his parents and one of his sisters in the Holocaust, and endured both Buchenwald and Theresienstadt. He went on to become one of “The Boys” — the over 700 young survivors brought to Britain after the war by a government that had hoped to rescue 1,000, but could not find that many.
In Helfgott’s life — he is now 88 — he has experienced satisfaction not only in sports, but also by helping fellow Holocaust survivors through The ’45 Aid Society.
This incredible story is the subject of a new book by acclaimed British journalist Michael Freedland entitled, “Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys.”
Published by Vallentine Mitchell, the book is based on Freedland’s extensive interviews with Helfgott over three years — including on a visit to Helfgott’s Polish hometown of Piotrkow.
The book was launched in mid-June at the JW3 Jewish Community Center in London before a standing-room only audience of 270. By that time, Helfgott had added one more achievement: He is now Sir Ben Helfgott after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II on June 8.
Freedland and Helfgott have known each other for decades, going back to 1983, when they were both in Poland during the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and visited Piotrkow.
Freedland was in the midst of a celebrated career; earlier this year, his achievements as a broadcast journalist were the subject of a 50-year retrospective by the BBC. Books he has written include biographies of stars such as Al Jolson and Judy Garland.
“Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys” is Freedland’s 40th book, and it marks another milestone for the author — it is Freedland’s first book about the Holocaust.
“It wasn’t difficult,” Freedland told The Times of Israel, noting that the subject is “so close to my heart.”
Freedland lost family members in the Holocaust — including his great-grandparents in Latvia, and his grandmother’s brothers.
“I was affected by people I never knew,” he said. “Also, the other side of the picture is my training as a journalist. You can write about anything. You should write about anything. It’s a journalist’s responsibility.”
But, he said, “on top of that you develop specialties” — including, in his case, history.
Freedland noted that the book was “a chance to pay tribute in many ways to Ben.” It was a task he felt he was up to, after his publisher asked him to take on the project.
“What was the most important was my affection for Ben, my love,” Freedland said.
The book began with a phone call to Helfgott, followed by lunch, and then meetings almost every week over the next three years, to the point where Freedland had compiled 600 pages of transcripts.
Helfgott detailed a life that began in prewar Poland, where he had grown up the son of Moishe and Sara Helfgott, and the oldest brother to sisters Mala and Lusia.
The war brought tragedy: Sara and Lusia were fatally shot by the Nazis. Mala, now Mala Tribich, survived the war and was interviewed by Freedland. Father Moishe looked after Ben.
“[The book] is partly a love story between him and his father, whom he obviously admired,” Freedland said. Father and son, he said, were together “most of the war. Both were in Buchenwald, right to the end. Their two lives were intertwined.”
Yet the pair were ultimately separated and Moishe was sent on a death march. Moishe tried to escape, but was shot and killed.
Freedland said that despite the murders of Helfgott’s parents and other family members, Helfgott only expressed fears of being murdered himself in one incident. It occurred after the war, when he and a young cousin returned to Poland.
“Polish policemen stripped them of their goods and beat him and his young cousin,” Freedland said. “It was horrible.” He called it a “one-man pogrom, a personal pogrom.”
Yet Helfgott has promoted good relations with contemporary Poland, which Freedland said shocked him in some ways.
“It’s very easy to think of Poland as ancillary to the Nazis,” Freedland said, but “[Helfgott] won’t have it, [though] he suffered at the hands of Poles almost as much as Germans.”
After the war, Helfgott put continental Europe behind him through a unique opportunity. The British government sought to bring 1,000 Holocaust survivors ages 16 and under to a new home across the English Channel. They would become known as “The Boys” (although they included both boys and girls). Collectively, these young survivors numbered “no more than 750,” Freedland said.
“They couldn’t find more in the whole of Europe,” Freedland said. “In groups of displaced persons, after the horrors of the Holocaust, for that age group to take advantage of the offer of 1,000 places. It defies imagination.”
Helfgott joined the group, and soon, in his adopted homeland, he would defy imagination in a different sense.
Helfgott’s athletic ability survived the Holocaust. Freedland described him as excelling at every sport except swimming.
“Every sport, he was there,” Freedland said. “Every sport, he was leading the team.”
Yet when he saw a man coaching others in weightlifting and expressed an interest, the 5’4″, 154-pound Helfgott was told he would be sorry if he attempted it himself. He tried it anyway and quickly showed prowess.
“I think he became a weightlifter because he had never done that and realized he could do very well,” Freedland said.
He did so well, in fact, that he held multiple British records, was a four-time British champion and went on to compete on the international stage — winning three gold medals at the World Maccabiah Games and a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games.
And then there were the Olympics, where Helfgott became one of just two known Holocaust survivors who went on to compete on the world’s highest athletic stage after World War II. (The other was Auschwitz survivor Alfred Nakache of France. A star swimmer who also played water polo, Nakache competed but did not medal at London in 1948; he had also competed at Berlin in 1936.)
Helfgott represented the UK as weightlifting captain in the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, and then four years later in Rome in 1960.
“He admitted he was not the best,” Freedland said. “When he went up against the Russians and the Americans, he got no medals.”
Yet the Olympic experience added a significant layer to the story.
“What also attracted me,” Freedland said, “was the point of view of a person — somebody within a decade of living in the most horrific place, in the transports we all heard about, standing in the cattle truck, people dying, horrible things around him — to, in fact, not just play sports [afterward], but rise to the level he did.
“To be selected for the Olympic Games twice is no small thing… It’s as much to his own determination as anything else,” said Freedland.
Helfgott’s story also includes a connection to the tragic 1972 Munich Olympics.
“He believes he was the last person to see the Israelis before their killing by the Black September terrorist group,” Freedland writes in the book.
“I was with them until about 1:30 a.m., speaking and drinking coffee. Then, at 7:30 a.m. I was woken by a phone call, telling me they had been taken hostage. I’ve never forgotten them,” Helfgott is quoted as saying in the book.
Freedland notes that “Even with that experience, coupled with his own suffering, nothing will allow him to hate all Germans.”
“If I started hating every German, I’d start to hate other people and I refuse to fall into that trap,” Helfgott says.
Helfgott eventually embarked upon a successful business career, retiring in his 50s, and started a family with his wife Arza. The couple had three sons — Maurice, Michael and Nathan. And Helfgott also found a means to help fellow survivors: The ’45 Aid Society.
“He had a feeling that he was lucky,” Freedland said. “Fellow survivors were not quite so lucky. He said, ‘We all did well,’ but several are on the poverty line… He set up The ’45 Aid Society, formed a wonderful society. They’re friends who consider themselves family.”
“I think they are doing a wonderful job making sure people are [helped],” Freedland said. “There are not many of them in this country. The Boys are all very old — he’s 88. A lot of them are not terribly well… their families have died … a lot have gone to Israel, America, Argentina, to the families they did have. There are really very few [left]. I don’t know how many they are [in terms of] membership.”
Helfgott’s actual family received quite a surprise one recent Friday night.
“He made a speech before his close family,” Freedland said. “At the end, he said, ‘I owe so much to this country. I got a knighthood.’ They gasped. His sons did not know.”
By the time of Freedland’s book launch, the world had become aware of the latest honor a grateful country has bestowed upon Sir Ben Helfgott.
“It’s superb, much more than anybody expected,” Freedland said. “The man was in the ghetto, then Buchenwald, then Theresienstadt. To kneel before the Queen, with her sword over his shoulder, to hear, ‘Arise, Sir Ben’ — isn’t that marvelous?”