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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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Each year Ben reminds them that "our experiences may have hardened us and made us more realistic about human nature, but they have also left us with a dream: to live in a world of understanding, compassion, fraternity and love for our fellow man."

Each year Ben urges The Boys to return to Poland before there is no one left who knew their mothers and fathers and who can tell them stories of prewar life and remind them that there were good people too. Ben has returned many times. He is the chairman of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies, and his work for postwar reconciliation between Poles and Jews earned him the Commanders' Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the highest honors the Polish government can bestow.

Each year he reminds them that after all they saw and all they lost, if they can leave the world better than they inherited it, then so can everyone else.

Just before the war, when Ben was nine, he read the book that gave him a hero. King Matt the First, written by Janusz Korczak, is the tale of a prince whose father dies and leaves him a child king. A political innocent, Matt creates a better world. He mandates chocolate for every schoolchild, builds summer camps for poor children and, unlike his predecessors, makes friends of his rival kings after defeating them in battle. But King Matt wasn't the one who became Ben's lifelong idol.

Korczak was a Polish pediatrician and radio personality who moved into the Warsaw ghetto during World War II so that he could start an orphanage there for homeless children. On Aug. 5, 1942, SS officials came to take the 192 children under his care to the death camp at Treblinka. A local celebrity because of his children's books and medical radio show, Korczak was offered the chance to leave. "You do not leave a sick child in the night," he said, "and you do not leave children at a time like this." He dressed the boys and the girls in their best clothes, and made sure that each had a favorite toy or book. Under the green flag of King Matt—because green is the symbol of all that grows—he marched with them two miles through the desolate streets of Warsaw to the train station. There, Korczak and his children together were put in cattle cars and sent to the gas chambers.

Each year there are fewer Boys to remind.

Holding the 2011 edition of the annual journal of the '45 Aid Society, Ben taps his index finger across a reunion photo.

"He was a nice boy," he says, pointing to Roman Halter, one of just four people from Chodecz, Poland, who survived the war. Halter became an architect and artist. He died in January. "And he was such a decent boy," pointing to a picture of his dear friend Israel (Krulik) Wilder. He died last May. Wilder was the lone survivor in his family. For so long Wilder had no one with whom to discuss his memories. Ben, who kept memories fresh by recounting them constantly, often reminded Wilder of the details of his own life. When members of The Boys began to pass away, in the 1970s, their children came to Ben to ask what their fathers had experienced. "Their fathers never told them," he says.

Ben became the de facto historian of The Boys. He hectored them until 115 Boys put their stories in writing for historian Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. In 1996, Gilbert's The Boys was published, preserving their collective memory.

It reflects another way in which Ben has lived backward. He retired from running a clothing manufacturing company 30 years ago and turned to his real life's work: remembering. For himself and for others. He lectures around the world and has edited 65 volumes (so far) of testimonies from Polish Holocaust survivors. Just as he begins every day working with a 30-pound barbell, so does Ben flex his memory daily, lest it atrophy. He is such a tight keeper of memories that single words, dropped in unrelated small talk by a conversation partner, can elicit the most eloquent and terrible stories.

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