‘I had to get on with living’: how Ben Helfgott went from a concentration camp to Olympic weightlifting

His parents were murdered by the Nazis and he survived starvation and slave labour during the war - before coming to Britain as a refugee and starting an extraordinary sporting career

His father, mother and little sister were shot by the Nazis. From the age of nine, he went from ghetto to ghetto, concentration camp to concentration camp, transported in cattle cars in which people collapsed and died all around him. For a time, he was to all intents and purposes a slave labourer. In the camps, he starved. And, 11 years after being liberated and again four years after that, he took part in the Olympic Games – as a weightlifter, captain of the team representing his new home, Britain.

Such was the early life of Ben Helfgott, who has devoted much of his time since the Rome Games of 1960 to helping fellow Holocaust survivors. Even now, at the age of 88, he is a strong man. Every morning, he lifts his weights, just as he was taught to do 70 years ago, before becoming British lightweight champion. They aren’t as heavy as the ones he worked with when he was famous, but I tried and I couldn’t shift them.

I spent a lot of time with Helfgott while researching my new book, Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys. That word “Boys” – the capital “B” is intentional – has particular relevance. Helfgott arrived in Britain as a 15-year-old in 1945, with 750 other children, flown in by the RAF to be settled in hostels run by Jewish organisations. The new Labour government had agreed that 1,000 youngsters, nearly all concentration camp survivors, could be granted entry permits to this country. But, tragically, in one of the almost forgotten sidebars to the Holocaust, they couldn’t find that many. Almost immediately, those survivors called themselves the Boys – even the girls who were among them.

Ben Helfgott (centre-left), aged four, with his family in Poland in 1934.
Ben Helfgott (centre-left), aged four, with his family in Poland in 1934. Photograph: PA Archive

Six years before, the boys (lower case “b”) were simply the ones Helfgott played with in the park in his Polish home town of Piotrków Trybunalski. That was when sport first entered his life.

In those days, Piotrków had 55,000 inhabitants, 15,000 of them Jews like the Helfgott family. Ben’s father, Moishe, ran the local flour mill and was treated with respect by Jew and gentile alike. His mother, Sara, was a housewife, and their children, Ben and his sisters Mala and Lucia, were happily at school.

He recalls being a glutton for learning – when he wasn’t bossing the other boys about as a self-appointed captain in their football games. “I was younger than most. But when we raced in the park, I always won.” Today, he is convinced that sport did two things for him. It boosted a sense of fair play and it gave him an inner strength. “I could never have survived the Holocaust without that strength,” he says. And he could never have become a world-class athlete. It all began in that park.

It was just a stone’s throw from the town centre, where many of the shops were owned by people such as the baker Morris Malenicki and Mr Zajączkowski, who reputedly sold the best herrings in that part of Poland. They, of course, were all Jewish. Their families and their shops are all long gone. The Nazis saw to that.

When the invasion began, on 1 September 1939, nine-year-old Ben and his sisters were staying with their grandparents in Sieradz, some 50 miles (80km) away. German planes had started to drop a few bombs on Piotrków, possibly because it was close to an army camp. When the children left, it was to go to Sulejów, a small town nine miles from Piotrków. You would never know there was a war on in Sulejów,” Helfgott recalls. “It was all very peaceful.”

That soon changed. By the time their parents joined the children, the incendiary bombs had fallen. Fires swept through the town of 5,000 people. Humans and animals were being roasted alive. “I saw stables filled with horses burning,” Helfgott says. “People were running like chickens with their heads chopped off.” The Helfgotts joined others who took refuge – or so they thought – in the nearby forest. It was not a clever move. Trees burn easily. “I remember walking among body parts strewn over the ground.”

So they went back to Piotrków. The Nazis were in full control and had established a large ghetto there, to which the family was ordered to go. Hundreds of men were taken to the local Jewish cemetery, which they entered one by one; and one by one, they were shot as they passed through the gates. Two of Helfgott’s uncles were among them.

His father, Moishe, was luckier. He forged a pass to let him out of the ghetto, which was easy enough: none of the guards knew what a real exit pass would look like. There was no barbed wire or even a notice at the entrance. Ben, who, like all the other Jewish kids, was banned from going to school, often got out, too. Truth is, there were rarely any guards there. But nobody dared escape for good – or bad.

Ben’s main worry was the occasional visit to the town by a senior Nazi official, who always had a big dog with him. “I hated that dog,” he says. “It was trained to go for men’s and boys’ testicles. I once managed to jump over a fence as it started to chase me.” Its victims never survived their ordeal. As for Ben, he has been “uncomfortable” with dogs ever since.

Helfgott senior and junior escaped the initial roundups of Piotrków Jews. In December 1942, 500, including Ben’s mother and Lucia, were taken to the local synagogue, from where they were moved to nearby woods and shot. Mala was spared. Incredibly, Sara had convinced police that her older daughter was too ill to travel. Moishe was on one of his trips and Ben had a job – working without pay in a glass factory, carrying heavy boxes. Perhaps that was the first training he had for becoming a weightlifter.

Another job without reward – except, of course, being left alive – followed. He, his father and surviving sister worked in a factory, making huts. He refuses to recognise it as slave labour – after all, he was treated no differently from the Polish workers, and allowed to go home at the end of his shift – but of course it was just that.

In the summer of 1944 came the journey to the camps. Mala was taken to the Ravensbrück women’s camp; Ben and Moishe stayed together until they arrived at Buchenwald. “It was a terrible place. All we had to eat was soup that smelled like urine and a crust of bread.” Ben and others went on to different camps; Moishe was not allowed to leave until Buchenwald was being abandoned, when he was rounded up for one of the “death marches” that moved prisoners away from the advancing Allies. He was shot trying to escape.

Young Jewish refugees at a camp near Windermere, Cumbria, in 1946. After being liberated from Thereisenstadt camp, Helfgott went to England and was billeted in a hostel near the Lake District town.
Young Jewish refugees at a camp near Windermere, Cumbria, in 1946 … after being liberated from Theresienstadt camp, Helfgott went to England and was billeted in a hostel near the Lake District town. Photograph: Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After the liberation of Theresienstadt, the last in a long chain of camps, one of Helfgott’s fellow inmates said he was joining a group going to England. “I knew I wanted to go, too,” Helfgott says. He was billeted in a hostel near Windermere. From there, he went to London, gained a place at Plaistow grammar school and passed his higher school certificate, just a couple of years after he had arrived in Britain, barely knowing any English.

His big sporting break was joining the Primrose Club for young survivors, run by Paul “Yogi” Mayer, a German athlete who had been hoping for a place in the 1936 Berlin Olympics until the Nazis banned him because he was Jewish. Mayer saw Helfgott’s potential. That was not surprising: he came first in every sport he took up.

‘I went to the weights myself and started lifting them’ … Ben Helfgott.
‘I went to the weights myself and started lifting them’ … Ben Helfgott. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Sport had become almost an obsession – particularly weightlifting. That started when he saw a group of youngsters training. He asked the boys’ coach if he could join in and got a firm “no”. “So I went to the weights myself and started lifting them. The man said, ‘I am not taking responsibility for you.’” He didn’t need to.

By now a British citizen, Helfgott won a series of competitions and became national lightweight champion in the early 50s. He seemed a shoo-in for the British Olympic team in Helsinki in 1952 but, after an operation for appendicitis, had to be content to go as a spectator. Melbourne in 1956 was a different story. There, he was captain of the team, as he was in Rome four years later. On both occasions he came away empty-handed. Three times, though, he won golds at the “Jewish Olympics”, the Maccabiah, in Israel.

He went on to the University of Southampton in 1948, but left after a year to go into business. It doesn’t seem the sort of work for a man who studied history and languages, but, with a partner, he ran a firm making cheap dresses. Certainly, he would never have made a living from sport in those days. He enjoyed the firm, concentrating on taking orders and working out prices. He retired in his 50s, so that he could spend more time working for survivors.

Part of that work was the founding of the ’45 Aid Society, which is still functioning 55 years later, helping former camp inmates who have fallen on tough times – although the years have severely depleted the number of “Boys” involved. For his work, Helfgott was awarded an MBE.

In 1966, he married Arza, with whom he has three sons. All the family have no doubts that he is their linchpin. “He is a man who would rather talk about the good things that people did,” says his middle son, Michael, a lawyer. “Not about the suffering he endured. And he loves to talk about sport. It is still so important to him.”

Helfgott has also worked for Jewish-Polish reconciliation. The spectre of antisemitism lingers in Poland (he himself was threatened with death by two Polish policemen who tried to stop him returning to Piotrków soon after the war) but, to the shock of many Jews, Helfgott refuses to blame all Poles (or Germans, for that matter) for the crimes of the past. For his efforts he has, several times, been decorated by the Polish government. Did his suffering leave him with psychological problems? “Not at all,” Helfgott says. “I  just had to get on with living.”

Michael Freedland’s book Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys is published by Vallentine Mitchell.


Michael Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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