When Ben Helfgott was invited to appear on Desert Island Discs he said that he would choose to be stranded with Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy if ever the plight was to befall him.
It seems a natural choice for a man who has survived some of the worst horrors imaginable to want to reflect on life and existence.
Yet he has emerged on the other side of his experiences with a huge sense of purpose and absolute belief that, despite everything that has happened, people are fundamentally good.
“Just because I don’t like someone, doesn’t mean I have to hate them,” said the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor. “We all have to get through life tolerating people. This is why Holocaust education is so important. It has lasting relevance to today’s world. Today we also have persecution, prejudice and intolerance but perhaps different nationalities are the victims and perpetrators. But people are still people and we have to learn lessons from this.”
Ben was nearly 10 when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. For three years he lived in the Piotrkow Trybunalski ghetto, the first to be established by the Nazis in Europe. His father had organised the smuggling of food into the ghetto, where conditions were harsh and disease raged.
Ben pretended to be Polish and refused to wear his Star of David armband, a ruse that enabled him to find ways of leaving the ghetto to smuggle back newspapers and other items. He got a place to work at the glass factory at the age of 12.
But the deportation and murder of the Piotrkow Jews was not far away and in 1942 his family life was torn apart. One evening as he came home from work he found the ghetto sealed off and people were being rounded up for “resettlement”. His parents went into hiding but his grandfather was sent to Treblinka. His sisters, who had been in hiding with Polish families, were returned to the ghetto because their carers said they could no longer keep them safe.
His mother and youngest sister were murdered with 535 others after coming out of hiding when the Nazis staged a fake amnesty of those who had returned to the ghetto illegally, in December 1942, four days before Christmas.
At the end of November 1944, with the Soviet army advancing from the east, the Nazis rounded up the remaining Jews – Ben and his father among them – and despatched them to Buchenwald. His other sister was sent to the camp at Ravensbrück, with a five-year-old cousin.
Father and son were later separated when Ben was sent to Schlieben concentration camp and then to Theresienstadt camp in the city of Terezin, now in the Czech Republic. When it was liberated three weeks later, Ben learned that his father had been shot. His sister had survived Bergen-Belsen and the two were eventually reunited.
The surviving Jews were not welcomed back in Piotrkow and other Polish cities when they sought to return, but an opportunity arose for Ben to come to England, which had offered refuge and a new home to 1,000 Jewish children and young people who had been orphaned during the war.
In the event, only 732 could be found alive. Once settled in Belsize Park in north London, he became active in the Primrose Club, for Jewish young people, and attended Plaistow Grammar School.
“I have worked a great deal on Polish-Jewish reconciliation,” Ben explained. “Jews were persecuted in Poland as in many parts of Europe before the war. People asked me ‘why do you love Poles?’ because they don’t want to remember anything about that time. I tell them it is not a question of loving or liking anyone, but there are good people and bad people and that is true everywhere. Poles helped me and my family.
“It is the same with Germans. People ask me if I like them. I tell them the same. Sometimes they don’t understand.”
In 1948, while watching a weight-lifting contest, Ben decided to take up the sport, eventually becoming a champion competitor, winning the British title four times. He competed at two Olympics and won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1958.
For the past 51 years, he has been chairman of the ‘45 Aid Society, a group formed by children who arrived in England in 1945 from Nazi Europe. His involvement with groups and organisations promoting tolerance and reconciliation led him to the presidency of Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorated on January 27 every year (see details, below). Ben is also an advisor to the Centre for Holocaust Education at London University’s Institute of Education, which supports schools on the teaching of the subject (for more on the resources and research undertaken by the Institute of Education, see our article here).
“Over many years I have been involved in a number of initiatives and activities surrounding schools and education, as well as working closely with survivors,” he said. “I believe that the Holocaust was a human act that we must seek to understand, and the more we understand, the more we can do to prevent it from happening again. We can do this through study by historians and scholars, but also by survivors telling their stories.
“We need to learn to recognise the signs, and to understand the cost of the passivity of the advanced world in the face of Nazi bestiality. When you have passivity, you allow bigotry and prejudice to take a hold on society.”
Ben believes that, on the whole, the teaching of the Holocaust in this country is delivered well and appropriately: “We must continue to teach it because there will come a day when there are no survivors left, and it must not be forgotten.
“My message is this: do not repeat the mistakes of the 20th century. Be tolerant and work in harmony with people of all races and creeds; reject hatred and revenge. Reach out with tolerance: live with integrity and give of yourself to society. Endeavour to enhance human dignity.”
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance journalist.
Holocaust Memorial Day 2015
Holocaust Memorial Day is national day of commemoration dedicated to the remembrance of those who suffered and perished during the Holocaust, under Nazi persecution and during subsequent genocides, such as those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan. The date – January 27 – is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1945.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) is the charity that promotes and supports Holocaust Memorial Day. The event has taken place in the UK since 2001, with more than 2,400 local activities taking place on or around 27 January each year. For more information, visit http://hmd.org.uk
70 Voices: Victims, Perpetrators and Bystanders
An app presenting 70 different perspectives on the Holocaust has been launched to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of the genocide. Every day for 70 days the app will explore the events of the Holocaust through different voices, including victims, perpetrators, bystanders and other witnesses.
At the end of each week, the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has launched the app, will host a podcast to explore the themes in more detail. The app is suitable for students aged 13 and over and is called 70 Voices: Victims, Perpetrators and Bystanders. Visit: www.70voices.org.uk
CAPTION: Never forget: Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott (top) was liberated from Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezin, where today stands a memorial to those who perished there (above)