This man will address the England squad… his story should humble the millionaires
21:30 GMT, 30 May 2012
His clothes filthy, his eyes sunken and his body little more than skin and bones, Ben Helfgott was liberated from Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1945 weighing six stone.
Eleven years later, his muscles bulging and his face a contorted mixture of physical pain and mental strain, he lifted more than 200lb of metal above his head as the British captain of the 1956 Olympic weightlifting team.
Lining up alongside the best in the world in Melbourne, the Poland-born Jew seemed no different from any of his fellow competitors. It was, in fact, a miracle he was there at all, a miracle he was alive after six torrid years which left him scarred physically and mentally.
Surivor: Olympic weightlifter and Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott
His story is an inspiration, one which the England football team will hear on Thursday as they prepare to fly out next week to the European Championship in Ukraine and Poland, where they will go to Auschwitz.
England are based in Krakow and will visit the site prior to their opening fixture against France — a trip organised by the FA and the Holocaust Education Trust.
The squad will sign the museum’s guest book before lighting a candle of remembrance on the train tracks at Birkenau. But first, Helfgott, now 83, and fellow survivor Zigi Shipper will tell the squad their incredible stories of how they survived the Nazi terror.
‘I was born to my mother Sara and father Moshe and we lived in Piotrkow, a town in central Poland of around 55,000 people,’ says Helfgott at his large house in Harrow, Middlesex, where he lives with his wife Arza.
‘Fifteen thousand were Jews. My father was in the flour business — life on the whole was very nice — but there was depression everywhere and it was felt in Poland, too. Those involved in agriculture couldn’t find work and this contributed to antisemitism because they said the Jews were taking their jobs. They felt there were too many and they wanted us out. I felt it as very often we were attacked by Polish boys. But life was good compared to when the Germans came.’
Medal haul: Helfgott was successful in Melbourne and Rome
Helfgott, his parents and his two younger sisters, Mala and Lusia, lived in a nice apartment with their extended family nearby. There were 23 cousins, only three of whom would survive the war.
Like almost every boy, Helfgott was addicted to sport. ‘I was always challenging other boys who could jump the highest, run the fastest and we’d play other games. I was usually the best and was very competitive.
‘When I was about eight I read a lot and I came across a small booklet of the story of a Polish athlete, Janusz Kusocinski, who competed in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and won the 10,000 metres. I was very interested and started challenging boys to run round the square we played in to see who would last longest.
‘I read about how Kusocinski would always keep going, no matter what, and his determination was instilled in me.’
Soon, books and sport mattered very little. In September 1939, when Helfgott was nine, the Second World War began.
‘Everything changed when the war broke out, says Helfgott, who still speaks with a strong Polish accent. Every word is considered, each memory visibly painful to re-live.
‘I was on holiday with my mother and sisters when it started. We were trying to get back home and a journey that normally took two hours, took 10 because bombs were falling. My father was back at home and was going crazy worrying about us. We got back but the following morning our town was bombed.
Proud: Helfgott representing Great Britain at the Olympic Games
‘We ran into the woods and the planes came down very low and started shooting. What I then saw has lived with me all my life. As people were running, they lost their families. Luckily, my parents held on tight to us and we were OK. You could hear people screaming names — have you seen my son, have you seen my mother — people begging for help. The scene was unbelievable. We had a horse and a carriage and the horse was killed and the carriage was broken. So we started walking.’
The family walked for a week before returning to Piotrkow, passing one of the places where they had hidden along the way. ‘They hadn’t cleared anything up. There were bodies, legs, heads. The smell of human flesh has never left me. It was so terrible.’
The Germans soon arrived in Piotrkow and continued their plan to rid the country of Jews. ‘They went to the synagogue and burned all the holy books on the first day. Anyone who was inside and ran out into the road was shot, including the rabbi.
‘From that day, there were difficulties. All the Jews had to move into a ghetto by November 1, 1939. In an area that used to hold 5,000 people, there were now 28,000 Jews as more had arrived. In some parts there was no electricity, no water, no toilets.
‘You can imagine how difficult it was and it didn’t take long for a typhoid epidemic to break out. From time to time the Germans would come and take men who were 15 or older — or looked old enough — to work for them. Sometimes they came back, sometimes they didn’t.
Show of strength: Helfgott was a successful weightlifter for Britain
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Royal appointment: Helfgott with Prince Charles
Moshe Helfgott was eventually killed near the end of the war. ‘They were on a death march and he tried to run away. They caught up with him and shot him like a dog. He always took great risks but it was one too many.’
At Schlieben, Helfgott, like the millions of other Jews persecuted by the Nazis, faced a daily battle to stay alive. ‘The camp was the worst place I’ve been. Hunger took over everything. Those aged between 18 and 30 were working during the day and they were the first ones to die — from hunger and exhaustion. We can’t have had more than 200 calories per day. Each morning we had a hot drink and then were given a tiny piece of bread in the evening with some jam. That was all. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Two people slept in 2ft 6in bunks. Just on wood. We didn’t have a change of clothing for five months.
‘There were situations where brothers, fathers and sons were fighting over little pieces of bread. It taught me about how people responded under such difficult conditions. I am still very much affected by it. Whenever I see the pictures of starving children in Africa on the television, tears come to my eyes. If I can’t finish something and it has to be thrown away, I feel very guilty.’
As the Germans realised they were about to lose the war, they tried to cover up the atrocities of the Holocaust. Helfgott was sent to another camp — Theresienstadt — where he was freed on May 9, 1945.
During his time there, he clung on to life despite the devastation at learning of his father’s death. ‘Two days after the news I was liberated but I wasn’t really looking forward to it because my father was my God.’
Even now he fights back the tears talking about it. After finding out his sister was alive, Helfgott came to England. ‘I was an Anglophile from a young age. Our cutlery was made in Sheffield and my father always told me the best cloth was English.’ He put weight on, watched the 1948 London Games with delight and competed in sport, thriving at gymnastics, athletics and table tennis.
But unlike today’s Olympians, who are handpicked from the best youngsters across Britain, Helfgott took up weightlifting in less professional circumstances.
‘One day on Parliament Hill in London I saw a group of muscly men lifting weights. I asked their coach if I could have a go. It was 140lb and I hadn’t lifted weights like that before. I insisted and lifted it right above me. He was amazed and he told me to take it up.’
Family man: Helfgott with his family before the war broke out
He started weightlifting regularly at a sports club and grew to love it. But his training was very different from that enjoyed by professional athletes today, with their funding and world-class facilities.
‘I could have been a wrestler but I didn’t like it because you need to hurt each other to win. With weightlifting it is you against the weights. Mind over matter. It wasn’t like now.
‘I was training around my work during the week and there were no special diets or anything like that. Weightlifting was just a part of my life. I didn’t want to be a slave to it. I didn’t want to train all the time.’
He started in 1949, competed in the Maccabiah Games a year later — almost breaking the British record — and was soon representing his country. A Commonwealth Games bronze followed his two Olympic appearances in Melbourne and Rome.
‘I finished 12th in 1956. I did break the Olympic record by 12lb but others broke it straight after. In 1960 the conditions were impossible. We had to wait too long in between lifts and it was boiling. Sweat was pouring off me. I could only do my first lift.’
Now he spends every waking hour trying to ensure a legacy, making sure people understand what happened and that it must never happen again. His mantelpiece is testament to his success in that area. There are pictures of him receiving his MBE from the Queen and meeting every prime minister from Thatcher to Cameron.
‘Sport has been great,’ he adds. ‘When you meet sportsmen, you don’t think about what colour or religion they are. It has shown me there is a way to live together.’
His story is remarkable, and inspiring. The pictures his words paint will travel in the minds of England’s players as they head to Poland.