He was one of more than 700 child survivors flown to Britain after World War II. He later became a leader in efforts to remember the Nazi horrors
June 28, 2023
Ben Helfgott, a Polish Jew who, after being liberated from Nazi imprisonment in 1945 weighing a skeletal 80 pounds, became an Olympic weight lifter for Britain, his adopted country, and who later dedicated himself to a public life of Holocaust education and remembrance, died on June 16 at his home in London. He was 93.
His son Maurice confirmed the death.
Mr. Helfgott was orphaned by the war. His mother and one of his sisters were shot to death in a forest in 1942. His father was killed while trying to escape a death march shortly before he would have been liberated.
At 15, after surviving three Nazi camps, Mr. Helfgott was one of 301 child survivors, most of them boys, who had been freed from concentration camps and introduced to new lives. They were flown by the Central British Fund for German Jewry (now World Jewish Relief) in August 1945 to Britain’s mountainous Lake District in the northwestern part of England. (About 400 more children were brought to Britain through 1948.)
The children went to school. They swam and hiked. They watched movies. The members of the group, which came to be called simply “the Boys,” formed a bond created by the mutual experiences of lives interrupted by ghettos, lice-infested barracks, cattle-car rides to concentration camps, starvation and forced labor.
They stayed close, helping one another, for decades. Some are still alive.
“During the day, anybody who observed us would never have believed what we went through,” Mr. Helfgott said when he was interviewed in 2007 for “Desert Island Discs,” a BBC Radio program on which guests are asked what recordings they would want with them if they were castaways. “But there was another story when we went to sleep. That’s when things happened, because most of us were still living with the trauma. And I was living with a terrible trauma because I kept thinking about my father.”
In 1948, after moving to London, the 5-foot-5 Mr. Helfgott observed weight lifters working out in a park. He was intrigued — and, displaying an obvious aptitude for the sport, he stunned one of them by lifting a 180-pound barbell over his head. He soon began training three nights a week after school.
It was the start of a stellar amateur career. He won four British weight lifting titles and the gold medal in the lightweight class three times at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. He competed twice in the Olympics.
At the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia, where the opening ceremony fell on his 27th birthday, he finished 13th in his weight class. Four years later, in Rome, he finished 18th. He was the captain of the British weight lifting team at both Olympics.
“I felt like I was representing all the talent that was unable to reach its potential because of the Nazi horror,” he told The Times of London in 2021.
Mr. Helfgott was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
Ber Helfgott, who was known as Ben, was born on Nov. 22, 1929, in Pabianice, in central Poland, near Lodz, and grew up in Piotrkow. He was one of three children of Moshe Helfgott, who owned a flour mill, and Sara (Klein) Helfgott, a homemaker.
When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, bombers blasted Piotrkow, sending the Helfgotts fleeing to Sulejow, nine miles away. There, a torrent of German incendiary bombs fell on the village. Houses — and people — burned.
“They were blindly running, as were cats, dogs, horses and cows, many on fire,” Mr. Helfgott told The Times of London in 2012. “They were running, madly, pointlessly, agonizingly.”
Soon after the Helfgotts returned to Piotrkow, they were forced into a Jewish ghetto. Ben worked in glass and woodworking factories. His father smuggled flour into the ghetto, sometimes disappearing for a day or two. Ben and his mother urged him to stop the risky activity, which could have gotten him killed
But, as Mr. Helfgott said on “Desert Island Discs,” his father told them, “I’d like to see how long you will talk like this if you have to live just on potatoes and salt.”
In late 1944, with his mother and his sister Luisa dead, Mr. Helfgott and his father were deported to Buchenwald. His sister Mala was sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany and later to Bergen-Belsen, also in Germany; she survived. Mr. Helfgott was sent to Schlieben, a Buchenwald sub-camp, leaving his father behind, before spending his final weeks in captivity at the Theresienstadt labor camp and ghetto in Czechoslovakia.
Three months after his liberation, Mr. Helfgott began his new life in Britain.
During his time as a weight lifter, he worked at bag and paper companies and as a manager at Great Universal Stores, a retail and mail order catalog company. After his competitive career ended in the early 1960s, he was a partner in a women’s sportswear company.
He retired in 1980 to focus on his Holocaust-related work.
He was the longtime chairman of the ’45 Aid Society, a charitable organization set up by the Boys in 1963 to support themselves and their families. He was the honorary president of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which leads the commemoration of the Holocaust in Britain every year on Jan. 27. He was also part of the group that brought a permanent Holocaust exhibition to the Imperial War Museum in London in 2021, as well as an active member of the Claims Conference, which secures compensation for Holocaust survivors.
“His sage advice was always grounded in his deep belief in human dignity and human rights,” the Claims Conference said in a statement.
Mr. Helfgott urged many of the Boys to tell their stories to the British historian Martin Gilbert, whom he persuaded to write the book “The Boys: The Untold Story of 732 Young Concentration Camp Survivors,” published in 1997.
“There is something different about them from older survivors,” Mr. Gilbert told The New York Times that year. “The older survivors came out of the camps as individuals. This group stayed together for three, four, five years. It seemed to have given them a sort of collective strength. They were never without someone who understood.”
Mr. Helfgott, who was also interviewed for that article, said: “We came here naked. We’ve tried to build a family and inject into it a zest for life.”
In addition to his son Maurice and his sister Mala Tribich, Mr. Helfgott is survived by his wife, Arza (Gordon) Helfgott; two other sons, Michael and Nathan; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Helfgott was knighted by the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) in 2018. The king paid tribute to him in a letter that was read aloud during Mr. Helfgott’s shiva.
The letter said, in part, that Mr. Helfgott “truly cherished the welcome that this country gave him — and I know he called himself a great Anglophile. In return he made a truly remarkable contribution to British life.”
A correction was made on
June 28, 2023
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the size of a barbell Mr. Helfgott lifted over his head after he observed weight lifters working out in a park in London in 1948. It was 180 pounds, not 140.
Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”