Thursday, January 24, 2019

Ben Helfgott: The Story of One of the Boys

"This is not just the story of another Holocaust survivor. After all, very few survivors would, just a few years after liberation, become Olympic athletes. It is a story Michael Freedland tells after dozens of interviews with Ben himself, as well as with members of his family, fellow survivors, and residents of his old home town in Poland. Ben grew up in a small Polish town, Pietrkow. His sister, the only other member of his family to survive, said that if she or anyone else needed a protector, Ben was the one to call. When the Nazis came to Pietrkow, his mother and one sister were shot. He and his father managed to survive initilly in the town ghetto by working in a glass factory and a woodwork plant. Before long, they were transported to the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp where his father subsequently died. Taken to Thereisenstadt, Ben was eventually liberated by the Red Army. Before long, he was one of 'The Boys' who came to England. His sporting excellence was recognised when he was selected for two Olympic Games in which he represented Britain as a weightlifter. He became a successful businessman and retired early so that he could make a personal crusade of bringing together other survivors. He founded the famous 45 Aid Society, worked with the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Holocaust Educational Trust. In his mid 80s, Ben is a prominent figure in the Claims Conference, which has awarded billions of dollars to needy survivors. He is a great believer in reconciliation with both Germany and his native Poland and both nations have given him awards in recognition of his work."

Excerpts From Chapter 16 - "Weights" 

Ben Helfgott was not the first Jew to think he could get good at lifting weights - and do very well at it. Until Ben came around the most famous of them was the Pole, Sigmund [Zishe] Breitbart. If that fact surprises, so might the thought of this Jewish strongman also being a Jewish blacksmith. He likely realized that if he could lift a horse's leg, the irons that were the tools of a weight lifter's trade were easy meat. 

In the 1920s Breitbart was regarded as a big star . . . 

. . . Ben, at five-foot, four inches tall, weighing 154 pounds, couldn't compete with Breitbart's achievements, which could be called, in effect, circus shows. What Ben Helfgott had set his sights on was purely sport, one that he took so seriously it was a form of science.

 . . . He was a lightweight (in athletic terms, that is). Prior to a certain meet he had to lose six pounds in three days. "I didn't eat as much." On the Friday before the big competition, he drank three glasses of water, two glasses on the Saturday, and drank or ate nothing on the day of the event until he weighed in. 

Of course, doing without food was no novelty for him. 

But this was different. Just how different he needed to explain . . . 

Chapter 17 - "Olympics" 

When you have done something which you love, you don't stop.
 - Sir Ben Helfgott      


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