15 June 2023 Time to read: 4 mins

Obituary: Ben Helfgott

It is with great sadness that the IHRA and its UK Delegation announce the passing of our beloved colleague and friend, Sir Ben Helfgott.

Ben was the last remaining survivor to serve as a delegate to the IHRA. He was present at the founding of the IHRA in Stockholm in 2000, later stating “My stand-out memories from the Stockholm international Forum on the Holocaust are Göran Persson’s speeches, but the whole atmosphere was phenomenal. Everyone there knew they were part of something historic and very special.”

IHRA Secretary General, Dr Kathrin Meyer, said “Ben was a kind and passionate individual who cared deeply about educating future generations about the horrors of the Holocaust and its consequences for the present day. I will never forget the emotional experience of listening to him share his testimony during the Czech IHRA Chairmanship in Terezin. Part of the reason I do this job is for him and I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to work alongside him throughout my time at the IHRA. We continue our important work to honour the victims and survivors of the Holocaust in his memory”.

Born in 1929 in Piotrków, Poland, Ben was almost ten at the start of the Second World War. In October 1939, together with his parents and two younger sisters, Ben was ordered to move into a ghetto. Deportations from the Piotrków Ghetto began in October 1942. In one week approximately 22,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to Treblinka, including Ben’s grandfather. Shortly after, Ben’s mother and youngest sister Lusia, who was eight years old, were rounded up and killed in nearby woods.

In 1944 Ben was sent to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, together with his father, while his sister, Mala, and his cousin, Ann, were deported to Ravensbrück. Ben and his father were in Buchenwald for nearly two weeks before they were separated, and Ben was sent to a concentration camp in Schlieben. In April 1945 Ben was transported to Theresienstadt, three weeks before the camp’s liberation. After liberation Ben found out that his father had been shot just a few days before the end of the war, as he made a bid to escape from a death march.

After the war, fifteen-year-old Ben was reunited with a younger cousin, Gienek, in Theresienstadt. His also found out that his sister, Mala and his cousin, Ann, had survived and were in the displaced persons’ camp at Bergen-Belsen. At Theresienstadt he was offered the chance to go to England. Upon hearing that travel to Bergen-Belsen would be impossible, he decided to make the trip to England and contact Mala once he arrived. Mala was taken to Sweden but was reunited with her brother in 1947.

Ben traveled to the UK with a group of around 300 boys, all around the age of sixteen, 30 girls and 20 young children. They arrived in England in August 1945 and spent time in Windermere in the Lake District. From there, 30 of the boys were sent to Essex and finally Ben moved to Belsize Park where he lived in a hostel. He helped to establish a club for Jewish young people, called the Primrose Club and attended Plaistow Grammar School, in an attempt to make up 6 years of his lost schooling.

Ben enjoyed taking part in sporting activities such as gymnastics, football, athletics and table tennis and in 1948 Ben got involved with weightlifting. He won the trials for the Maccabiah Games, became Home Counties champion and went on to win a gold medal in Israel. In 1956 he represented his adopted country at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff where he won a bronze medal, and at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome as captain of the British weightlifting team.

Ben devoted his life to promoting Holocaust education. Ben was a long-standing member of the UK Delegation to the IHRA and held the position of Chairman of the ‘45 Aid Society for more than 40 years, an association formed by and for the children who arrived in England in 1945 from Nazi-occupied Europe. He was an honorary patron of the Holocaust Educational Trust and was President of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

In June 2018 he was awarded a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Ben will be very much missed, as a respected colleague and also as a very dear friend.

Our thoughts and heartfelt condolences are with Ben’s wife Arza, who remains a dear member of the IHRA family, his three sons Michael, Maurice, and Nathan, and his colleagues in the UK Delegation.

May his memory always be a blessing.


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