Holocaust survivor turned Olympic hero on his harrowing life in Nazi death camps

He turned unimaginable tragedy into something both inspiring and extraordinary, a strong man in every sense of the word.

And now, Holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott has been named the Pride of Britain, 75 years after he first arrived on our shores at just 15, weak and emaciated after surviving starvation and slave labour in ghettos and concentration camps.

His father, mother and little sister had been murdered by the Nazis.

But he quickly regained his strength and, incredibly, just 11 years later, captained the British weightlifting team at the 1956 Olympics, a feat he repeated four years later.

Since then the remarkable sportsman – who turns 91 next month – has worked tirelessly to help his fellow survivors, and educate the younger generation about the horrors of the Holocaust.

He was surprised with his Lifetime Achievement Award by actor Stephen Fry while on a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Garden in Hyde Park, London.

Sir Ben said he was “honoured” to receive the “wholly unexpected award”.

He said: “It is so important to remember those who we lost and to teach the history of the Holocaust. Something like this must never be allowed to happen to the Jews again, but equally it must never happen to anybody.

“I hope this prestigious award will help to spread that important message a little further.”

Stephen Fry told him: “I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award than you. So much in Britain that educates is on account of your extraordinary work over the years.”

Describing him as an “awe-inspiring, yet unassuming man”, Stephen added: “Out of terrible evil, flowers of good can grow.”

It is one of the highlights of the Daily’s Mirror Pride of Britain Award 2020, in partnership with TSB, which will be screened on Sunday at 9pm on ITV.

Ben was just nine years old when the Nazis took control of his hometown Piotrkow In Poland, and his family were forced into a ghetto.

In December 1942, his mother Sara and younger sister Lucia were among 500 Jews who were rounded up by the Nazis, taken to the local woods, and shot dead.

In summer 1944 Sir Ben was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where he was separated from his father Moishe. Moishe was later also shot, for trying to escape from a death march, tragically just days before the war came to an end.

Remembering the camp, Sir Ben said: “It was a terrible place. All we had to eat was soup that smelled like urine and a crust of bread.”

Weak, emaciated and starving, Sir Ben was freed during the liberation of Theresienstadt in May 1945, and joined a group of orphans being moved to the UK.

Settling in Plaistow, London, he took up weightlifting and, despite his short stature – 5ft 4in – he proved to be a natural.

Sir Ben represented Britain as a weightlifter at the Olympics, and then the Commonwealth Games, where he took home a bronze medal. He was one of just two known Holocaust survivors to compete at such a level.

He later set up a dress business and in 1966 married wife Arza, with whom he had three children – Maurice, 53, Michael, 51, and Nathan, 49 – and nine grandchildren.

Sir Ben set up the ‘45 Aid Society, to offer support to the survivor community, which still exists today. And he focused to educate people about the Holocaust, believing that it would help to increase integration, peace, and tolerance.

His son Maurice explains: “Dad sees that by teaching the facts of history you learn how to be tolerant of one another. He has been an extraordinary role model in living a full, positive life, while maintaining huge responsibility for a mission he believes in.”

And paying tribute to his achievements, Stephen Fry said: “You shouldn’t have to be Jewish or to have a relatives who perished in the Holocaust yourself to be stunned by characters like Ben Helfgott, though of course it does add an extra element of admiration and appreciation.

“His actions speak for all humanity however. His quiet determination to ensure that the unspeakable wickedness and evil of what happened has been inspirational.

“Against indifference, denial and doubt he has raised a literal and figurative memorial wall that honours the victims and helps push back against the possibility that such horrors might be allowed to happen again.

“It was so wonderful to see his large family standing there beaming with pride and of course I couldn’t help but think ‘if he hadn’t survived … none of them would be there’.

“He would say he had survived because he was lucky, but it was also because he was strong. Literally strong – heavens, the man went on to become an Olympic weightlifter!

“It’s wonderful thing that Pride of Britain has recognised him. In this time of fear, distress, doubt and anxiety the quiet, unassuming strength of a man like Sir Ben Helfgott reminds us that the human spirit can – like grass through concrete – win through.”

In 2018 he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for services to Holocaust remembrance, and education.

Even aged 90, Sir Ben is still working hard, campaigning for a national Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Palace Gardens, Westminster. Maurice says: “Dad wants to keep the memory of that awful period alive in the public conscience for years to come.”