An inspiring Olympian

Today, former Olympic and Commonwealth Games weightlifter Ben Helfgott will meet the England football team. This is not merely a meeting of sportsmen, but a once in a lifetime experience – for the England team at least. Because Ben isn’t just a weightlifter, but also a Holocaust survivor. And he will be accompanying the footballers as they visit Auschwitz.

Ben Helfgott
courtesy Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

Ben was born and grew up in Piotrkow, near Lodz, Poland and was nine years old when war broke out in 1939. As early as October 1939 the Jews of Piotrkow were forced into a ghetto which, unlike the larger ghettos of Warsaw and Lodz, was not surrounded by a wall. Athough the penalty for being found on the ‘wrong side’ was severe, Ben’s father courageously moved outside the ghetto boundary and organised the smuggling of food into the ghetto – a lifeline for many inhabitants. Similarly, in the three years Ben spent in the ghetto he also took advantage of his blonde hair and non-Jewish appearance to go beyond the ghetto limits. By the age of twelve he was working in a glass factory outside the ghetto.

Deportations from Piotrkow began in 1942. In one week, approximately 22,000 Jews from a total population of just over 24,000 were rounded up and sent to Treblinka. Ben returned from working at the glass factory to learn that although his parents had both hidden during the deportations, his grandfather  had been sent to Treblinka. It was a brief reprieve for Ben’s mother and younger sister Luisa who were murdered along with hundreds of other Jews who had been in hiding in December 1942.

In mid-1944 Ben and his father were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Ben was later sent on to Schlieben and Theresienstadt where he was liberated in 1945. He later found out that his father had been shot just days before the end of the war as he attempted to escape from a death march.

Without his parents, but with the knowledge that his sister Mala and two cousins Gienek and Ann had survived, Ben travelled to England with around 300 other boys aged  around 16, 30 girls and 20 small children. His initial recuperation and rehabilitation was in Windermere.

It was not long after his arrival in the UK that Ben discovered weightlifting. He had been a keen sports player before the war and was hailed as a ‘natural’ by those at the Primrose Club where he began his training. By 1950 he was competing internationally in the Maccabiah Games. He went on to represent Britain at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff where he won bronze, and at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Ben is an inspirational man. He has worked tirelessly  with schools and sports associations to share his story and educate people about the dangers of extremism, racism and hatred. He speaks without a trace of hatred for those who persecuted him and his family, but with a clear aim to be part of a force that will make the world a better place. Together with Zigi Shipper he will visit Auschwitz with the England football team, recognising that these sportsmen have a large audience and a lot of influence. Indeed, racism has been a key issue for the England team as it prepares to travel to Eastern Europe. This is just one of the ways in which Ben has continued to work towards inspiring today’s athletes in his work in Holocaust education and awareness.

Ben’s Story in your Classroom

Ben’s story can be used as part of activities you may be planning in the lead-up to the Olympics this summer as part of a History or Citizenship lesson. The worksheet ‘Olympians who made history’ is one way students can explore the relationship between sports and politics. They can choose to explore the story of one of the athletes listed and compare the ways in which they have / haven’t used their influence to promote political causes. This could lead onto further discussion over whether sport and politics should be separate.

Further  reading:

Ben’s full story can be read on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s website here

Telegraph article – London 2012 Olympics: British Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott’s story inspires medal hopeful Zoe Smith – 30th May 2012

New York Times article – A Risky Trip Outside the Protective Cocoon – 30th May 2012

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