One of only two Holocaust survivors who later participated in the Olympics, Ben Helfgott, passed away on Friday at 93.
Helfgott, a teenager who lived through the Holocaust, became a world-class weightlifter and an advocate for Holocaust education. 2018 saw his knighting.
London’s Jewish News said Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis described Sir Ben Helfgott as “one of the most inspirational people I have known.”
“He was a passionate and charismatic leader who championed the virtues of kindness, empathy, love, and harmonious cohabitation. He was driven by his own horrifying experiences to work hard for a more balanced and united world, and he inspired us to follow in his footsteps.
In 1929, Helfgott was born in Piotrkow, Poland. He once claimed that his parents were concerned about their future in Poland as Jews and that in 1935, his family had obtained the necessary documents to travel to Palestine.
They continued to stay since his grandmother did not want to go.
When Helfgott was ten years old in 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. His family was imprisoned in the Nazis’ first ghetto in Europe.
Helfgott took advantage of his blond hair by spending time outside the ghetto – without his Star of David wristband. Helfgott’s father spearheaded efforts to smuggle supplies into the ghetto.
Before Helfgott and his father were taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, he spent three years living in the ghetto. Other family members of his were deported.
Ultimately, Helfgott would be cut off from his father, who, as he subsequently discovered, had died while attempting to flee a death march.
Helfgott was sent to Theresienstadt and freed three weeks after being moved to the Schlieben concentration camp. Helfgott was a living orphan at the age of 15.
At that point, he seized the chance to visit England and be reunited with his sister. Helfgott would also learn about weightlifting there.
In 1955, 1956, and 1958, the 5-foot-5 Helfgott would win the lightweight title in Britain. He competed for Great Britain in the Olympics in 1956 and 1960 and won gold medals at the Maccabiah Games in 1950, 1953, and 1957. The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame welcomed him in 1995.
Despite his physical prowess, Helfgott’s efforts to help other survivors were his true calling. He served as the head of the ’45 Aid Society, a group established by and for the 732 young survivors (commonly referred to as “the boys”) who arrived in England in 1945.
“Ben was one of the greatest ambassadors for the Boys and, indeed, for all Holocaust survivors,” the group said in a statement.