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The Strength To Carry On
July 09, 2012
From the depths of loss and horror in a Nazi death camp, Ben Helfgott made himself into an Olympian and helped lift his fellow survivors to lives of meaning and connection
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July 09, 2012

The Strength To Carry On

From the depths of loss and horror in a Nazi death camp, Ben Helfgott made himself into an Olympian and helped lift his fellow survivors to lives of meaning and connection

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On May 9, 1945, when he walked out of Theresienstadt concentration camp as an 80-pound sack of bones, "Olympic weightlifter" seemed an unlikely line on his future résumé. But then, he should have been dead—just like his parents, one of his two sisters and 21 of his 24 cousins. For five years the Nazis had expected nothing of him other than to die. But as his day at the gas chamber closed in, so did the Russian army, just in time. He had lived, so defying expectations was nothing new. But recovering was another thing altogether.

Back then, even Leonard Montefiore, the British Jewish philanthropist, betrayed skepticism over whether Ben and the others could be salvaged. It was Montefiore who persuaded the British government to allow 1,000 Jewish orphans to be transported from liberated concentration camps to group homes in England once the war ended. Surviving children were so rare that only 732 ultimately came.

The orphans—most between 12 and the late teens—became known, simply, as The Boys. (All but 80 of the orphans were boys, as so few girls survived the camps.) In 1946, Montefiore wrote of the children, "They have been in close contact with every kind of vice and wickedness that the mind can conceive.... For them during the whole of their childhood, honesty was the very worst policy. It led immediately to destruction. How can they be expected to learn in a short while the reverse of the maxim taught them by bitter experience?"

In the fall of 1945, when The Boys were settled into an abandoned aircraft factory in England's mountainous Lake District, they would stuff their pockets with food and squirrel it away in their rooms, as if it would be stolen from them. For years during the war, "I couldn't think of anything but a piece of bread," Helfgott says. "I was demented, I tell you. I went to sleep hungry, woke up hungry. I could think of nothing else but a piece of bread." In the concentration camps bread meant another day of life. Ben saw fathers fight their sons over bits of bread and a man barter a diamond for a single slice. "A kingdom for a horse," he says, shaking his head. And yet, he always shared his few crumbs with his bunkmate, Arthur Poznanski. By the grace of such little acts, he clung to his humanity.

Once in England, the orphans became a family of 732 siblings. Many were the lone witnesses to prewar life in communities in Poland that had been wiped completely from the earth. They were united by the horror of their shared memories. But they were united, nonetheless. In the years to come they would rarely discuss what they had seen, but they would lean on one another for silent understanding. And they would exceed all expectations.

Despite a five-year absence from school, many of The Boys would graduate from college on time and become doctors, lawyers, architects, scientists and business owners. And then there was Ben, relentlessly chatty in English even when he barely knew it—he would come to speak nine languages—and always eager to elicit a smile by making his entrance walking on his hands. In 1948, living with other Boys in a transition house in London's Belsize Park, Ben saw a group of men lifting weights. Against a coach's advice, he grabbed a 140-pound barbell and pressed it over his head. "You've never lifted weights?" the astonished coach asked. Ben began training three evenings a week after school.

In 1954 he won his first of four lightweight British weightlifting championships, and in '55 traveled behind the Iron Curtain for a competition in Warsaw. It was a return to his home country, where the Jewish population had been reduced from three million to 45,000. "The life I knew was completely gone," Ben says.

On Nov. 22, 1956, his 27th birthday, Ben marched into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games as the captain of the British weightlifting team. "Eleven years ago," he thought, "I was at the point of death." He placed 13th in Melbourne, and 18th in the subsequent Olympics in Rome, competing against Communist bloc athletes who were essentially professionals. After Rome his time as captain of the British team ended, and he became a sort of captain of The Boys—a linchpin holding them together over the decades.

In 1963, The Boys formed a charitable organization, the '45 Aid Society, and elected Ben chairman. Initially, the society provided financial assistance to Boys who needed it. But as The Boys flourished, Ben turned their mission outward.

Each year, in May, when The Boys come together to commemorate their liberation, Ben gives a speech and reminds them that even Montefiore had his doubts about them. He reminds them that they have succeeded because they chose not to be poisoned by hatred. He reminds them that a German today is no more responsible for what happened than they themselves were as children, when they were bullied by Polish boys who insisted that Jews killed Jesus. "Even if it's true," he says, "it happened 2,000 years ago." At the 1977 reunion Ben reminded them of the second life they were given in Britain. "It would be fitting if we, who were once recipients, were also to become donors," he said. And so every year they give to causes such as cystic fibrosis research or the Micha Society for deaf children.

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