Whilst holidaying in June in the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains of California, I awoke one morning and idly picked up my phone to catch up with news from the UK. ‘Tributes pour in for Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott,’ a prominent headline stated. So many miles from home, I was overcome by a feeling of disbelief. Although Sir Ben passed away at the remarkable age (by any standards) of 93, to those of us in the field of Holocaust education, his presence was so familiar and important, that it is as though we are entering a new reality. He was, in many ways, the leader of the Holocaust survivor community, an embodiment of the resilience of a small group of people who rose again, and triumphed, from the ashes of the horrors they endured, and who were certainly not meant to continue to live beyond their entry into the gates of the death camps or European forests.

 It is quite difficult for us to imagine what it must have been like for the 16-year-old Ben arriving in Britain in 1946 having lost everything that we take for granted in our everyday lives. He came with a group of orphaned teenagers who came to be termed by the esteemed historian Sir Martin Gilbert ‘The Boys’ (even though the group contained a few girls too). These young people had lost everything: their entire families, homes, communities, possessions. Understandably deeply traumatised, they were at first cared for in a collection of formers workers’ hostels located on the peaceful shores of Lake Windermere in Cumbria. After several months of these teenagers coming to terms with the fact that they could never regain what was lost, they were ushered off into the challenge of their future lives.

Ben had in fact lost all his family, except his younger sister Mala, who joined him in Britain in 1947. Ben’s home town of Piotrkow-Trybunalski had been the first town in Poland to have a ghetto, and his mother and older sister had been shot by the Nazis. His father had been shot trying to escape a death march.

Only 11 years after the starved and skeletal Ben was liberated from a concentration camp, he proudly represented his new homeland of Great Britain in the Olympic Games as a weightlifter. He captained the British weightlifting teams in 1956 and 1960. In the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, he won a bronze medal. These were truly remarkable achievements, and some 60 years later his death featured on the Homepage of the British Weightlifting website.

He had a successful business career in clothing manufacturing, but still found time to found and lead the 45 Aid Society, which helped with the welfare of Holocaust survivors, including many of the 700 children who came to Britain with him. He chaired, or sat on the boards of, many of Britain’s Holocaust related organisations.

He was one of the first to actively promote education about the Holocaust in schools, and so many young people, now adults, had the opportunity to hear him speak in person. In 2018, Ben was awarded a knighthood by the late Queen Elizabeth for services to Holocaust remembrance and education, and in 2020 was a recipient of a Daily Mirror Pride of Britain Award, watched by millions on TV. He was also the subject of a memorable edition of ‘Desert Island Discs’, citing Gracie Fields as one of his pre-war favourites.

Nonetheless, to Ben, his most important achievement was his family life. Along with his wife Arza, he raised three sons and welcomed nine grandchildren.

As the Anne Frank Trust’s Executive Director, I had worked alongside Ben for many years. I particularly recall the many meetings at the Home Office in the late 1990s, when a group of representatives of Holocaust education and welfare organisations met regularly to discuss the creation and implementation of a Holocaust Memorial Day for Britain. Ben openly and regularly voiced his concern that the significance of the day could become dissipated to serve as a vehicle for any current grievances, and that the unique aspects of the Shoah must always be prominently explained. Once the annual event was implemented and proved to be the success it is, Ben never held back with his praise.

Ben’s passing, and that of so many Holocaust survivors in the past couple of years, reminds us who have had the privilege of hearing their memories first hand that this was indeed a precious gift. It bids us to ensure these stories are relayed even further and even wider, so the legacy of Ben Helfgott remains in the care of all of us who will carry it forward.




Gillian Walnes Perry MBE,

Co-founder and Honorary Vice President of the Anne Frank Trust UK