Buckingham Palace announced today that our Honorary President, Ben Helfgott MBE, is to receive a knighthood in The Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2018. Ben, a survivor of the Holocaust, has been integral in the development of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) as a founding trustee, and in 2012 he accepted the position of Honorary President of HMDT. Having benefitted from Ben’s support for many years, we are so pleased to be able to celebrate his achievements.
Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of HMDT said: ‘Ben is an extraordinary individual and we are so pleased that the legacy of his work has been recognised with this knighthood.
‘After experiencing unthinkable pain and loss when he was young, he has dedicated so much time to making sure the suffering he endured will not be repeated.
‘In 2016, to celebrate Ben’s achievements with the 45 Aid Society, I took part in a group tribute where we sang ‘There is no one quite like Ben’. However questionable our performance might have been, there is no questioning the truth and the heart of this statement: there really is no one quite like Ben. His impact cannot be overstated.
‘Everyone at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is so grateful to Ben for his support, friendship and contribution to our work, and I am personally grateful for his advice and guidance.’
Ben was born in Piotrkow, Poland. His happy childhood came to an end when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. His family were sent to a ghetto for three years, where they survived in part due to the love and determination with which Ben’s parents took care of their children. In 1942, the Nazis took Ben’s mother and his youngest sister to a synagogue. Although Ben’s mother could have escaped, she refused to leave behind her youngest child. They were taken to the woods and murdered. In 1944, Ben and his father were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, and his sister Mala was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck. Ben was separated from his father, and sent on to other camps until he was liberated in Theresienstadt. He later found out that his father had been shot on a death march, just days before the end of the war.
Now an orphan, Ben came to the UK with a group children and young people known as ‘the Boys’. He was later reunited with the only other member of his immediate family to survive, his sister Mala. Ben went on to meet his wife, Arza, and have three sons, Maurice, Michael and Nathan. Today, Ben and Arza live in London near his sons and his grandchildren, and close to Mala.
When he arrived in the UK aged 15, Ben described himself as a ‘walking skeleton’. 10 years later, Ben was representing his adopted country in the Olympic Games in weightlifting. This remarkable strength from someone who had lost so much during the Holocaust demonstrated his drive and determination, but was also a sign of what he would go on to achieve in later years.
Ben began to dedicate his life to education, commemoration and awareness of the Holocaust. He has tirelessly worked towards a goal of ensuring all people understand the dangers of intolerance, prejudice and discrimination.
In addition to being HMDT’s Honorary President, Ben helped to establish the 45 Aid Society, where he was Chairman for 50 years, and has worked with countless other organisations to share his story and champion the voices of survivors. His impact had reached every level of society, from schools and community groups to The Royal Family and the Prime Minister.
In addition to his recent knighthood, Ben has previously received the Freedom of the City of London in 2015, an MBE for services to the community in 2000, and the Polish Knights Cross, Order of Merit, and Commanders Cross, Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in recognition of his work on reconciliation between Poles and Jews.
More recently, Ben was invited to join the Board of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation. He has passionately championed the voices of survivors, and has been a key voice in campaigning for a new Holocaust Memorial and learning centre, which is set to be built in Victoria Tower Gardens, directly opposite the Palace of Westminster.