(JTA) — Ben Helfgott, one of two known Holocaust survivors to go on to compete in the Olympics, died Friday at 93.
Helfgott survived the Holocaust as a teenager, and he went on to become a champion weightlifter and a champion of Holocaust education. He was knighted in 2018.
“Sir Ben Helfgott was one of the most inspirational people I have known,” said Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, according to London’s Jewish News. “He was a charismatic and passionate leader, who promoted the values of compassion, understanding, love and peaceful coexistence. His own horrific experiences inspired him to work tirelessly for a more peaceful and unified world and he inspired us to do likewise.”
Helfgott was born in Piotrkow, Poland, in 1929. He once said his parents were troubled about their future as Jews in Poland, and in 1935 his family had secured paperwork to leave for then-Palestine. But his grandmother did not want to leave, so they stayed.
The Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, when Helfgott was 10. His family was forced into a ghetto, the Nazis’ first in Europe. Helfgott’s father led efforts to smuggle food into the ghetto, while Helfgott himself took advantage of his blond hair by spending time outside the ghetto — without his Star of David armband.
Helfgott would spend three years in the ghetto before he and his father were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Other members of his family were deported to Ravensbrück.
Helfgott would ultimately be separated from his father, who he later learned was killed attempting to escape a death march. Helfgott was sent to the concentration camp in Schlieben and later Theresienstadt, which was liberated three weeks later. At 15, Helfgott was alive and an orphan.
That’s when he jumped at an opportunity to go to England, where he would be reunited with his sister. That’s also where Helfgott would discover weightlifting.
The 5-foot-5 Helfgott would go on to become Britain’s lightweight champion in 1955, 1956 and 1958. He represented the United Kingdom in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, and he won gold medals at the Maccabiah Games in 1950, 1953 and 1957. He was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
Despite his athletic achievements, Helfgott’s greatest passion was his work supporting fellow survivors. He served as chairman of ‘45 Aid Society, an organization created by and for the young survivors — often called “the boys” — who in 1945 arrived in England, 732 children in all.
“Ben was one of the greatest ambassadors for the Boys and, indeed, for all Holocaust survivors,” read a statement from the organization. PJC