Ben Helfgott was born in 1929 in Poland. He is one of a dwindling band of Holocaust survivors and on Saturday he was our guest at the Peirene Salon.
He told us about surviving Buchenwald and Theresienstadt concentration camps. He told us how his mother chose to join his eight-year old sister in front of a firing squad. He told us about the German women who worked in the labour camp. They talked politely to the starving boys but did not share their bread. He told us how he was separated from his father and how he learnt after his liberation at the end of the war that his father had been shot only two weeks before. He said: ‘My father was my hero.’
He told us how he survived. He was young, determined to live and keen to tell his story. He said: ‘They did not break my spirit.’
He came to Britain in 1945. He caught up with six years of missed schooling, he studied economics and captained the British Olympic weightlifting team in 1956 and 1960.
In the question and answer session he was asked whether he ‘still found Britain a place of tolerance?’ ‘Absolutely,’ he replied. ‘You take things for granted here but all my fellow survivors honour Britain as tolerant and civilized country.’
I feel humbled and honoured that Ben has sat in the Peirene arm-chair. Watching him tell his story, I realized that he conveyed something invaluable: an insight into human decency, generosity and courage.
I often think about the many novelists, poets, a poet laureate, journalists, translators and academics who have already sat in our front room and what they have brought and shared. Ben has added his own brand of dignity to that distinguished group.
Usually the Peirene Salon discussion lasts an hour. Yesterday it lasted nearly two. As Ben climbed into the taxi, my husband and I waved good-by. Then for a moment we stood quietly side by side before we turned back into the house.
Thank you, Ben Helfgott.