Do you think it's too gory for a 15-year-old?" Arza Helfgott asks her husband. She wants to know whether she should take their 15-year-old grandson to a screening of a film presentation of the stage production of Frankenstein at London's National Theatre.
This is an article from the July 9, 2012 issue
Her husband is the wrong person to ask. Ben Helfgott loves his wife of 46 years deeply, dearly—she is inches taller and likes to plant a kiss atop his bald pate when she leaves their house in London's Harrow district—but he won't put a moment's thought into this question. He is sure the boy will be fine, Frankenstein or no Frankenstein, gore or no gore. Ben smirks. He is 82, and he is thinking of what he had seen by the time he was 15.
He was not quite 10 when he saw the fire menagerie. It was Sept. 3, 1939, the last Sunday of summer vacation in Poland. But it would be more than five years before Ben would go back to school. In the early morning hours the main street of Piotrkow, where the Helfgotts lived, had been blasted into rubble by German bombers.
The Helfgott family, in horse and carriage, fled eastward to Sulejow, a town of 5,000. It was just nine miles away but a world removed. People walked the streets casually under a brilliant morning sun. Right away, Ben found a group of like-minded boys eager to chase one another around a plaza. But the interlude of normality was short-lived.
In the early afternoon there was a dull whistle and then earsplitting thunder as incendiary bombs fell onto a village of perfect tinder, its houses made of wood and thatch.
Everything caught fire. Horses, cows, cats, dogs and people were on fire, running frantically, aimlessly, in every direction, as if they could escape the flames clinging to their backs. Ben's mother, Sara, and his father, Moshe, pulled him into one of the few brick houses in Sulejow. Packed shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of other people, they waited.
As quickly as it came, the bombing stopped, and there was dead silence in the house. A man started to chant the Shema Yisrael, one of the most important Hebrew prayers and one that Jews hope to say right before they die. The entire house joined in a somber drone. When the prayer ended, like a rodeo gate the door flew open and everyone sprinted for the forest.
Ben clung to his father as the planes buzzed low. Their machine guns clattered, and all around people fell. When the guns stopped, the shouting began.
Those who had reached the forest were calling out names: Yiddish names, Polish names, names of children and spouses who were already dead. Some of the people who had been on fire moments earlier managed to slink into the woods, their bodies still smoldering and smoking as they cried for help. The sickly sweet smell of burning flesh would never leave Ben. More than 70 years later, when he thinks about it, his nose wrinkles.
In a sense, Ben Helfgott, like Ben Button, has lived in reverse. He experienced more deaths of his friends and family members during his second decade of life than he has in his ninth. And he is more muscular now, at 82, than he was at 15.
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.
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.
"You cannot imagine the feathers!" he says. Between Oct. 14 and 21, 1942, 22,000 of the 24,000 Jews in the Piotrkow ghetto were deported to the gas chambers with only feathers left behind. Ben was 12, and he was spared because his father had wrangled him a job at a glass factory in a labor camp just beyond the ghetto. When the deportation ended and Ben returned to the ghetto, there were no people, just feathers. Feathers tumbled down the streets and floated overhead. Spears of sunlight pierced the canopy of feathers. Nazi soldiers, in their search of houses, had slashed every pillow and blanket in the ghetto.
"If I forget," Ben says, "then I'm not worthy of being a survivor."
Some memories have become so much easier over time, like the fire menagerie. After that, Ben had nightmares of hiding under a table while soldiers hunted him. Eventually, though, it stopped haunting his dreams.
Other memories have grown more difficult. For decades Ben related the story of his family in the analytical prose of a historian. But in 2006, to his own surprise, he had to battle back tears. And it's getting worse.
In December 1942, Ben's mother and his nine-year-old sister, Lusia, were taken to Rakow Forest, where they were shot and tossed in a ditch. Ben had always told the story with such detachment that people could hardly believe he had lived through it. But as The Boys began to die of old age—fewer than 250 remain—he thought more deeply about the terror imposed on his mother and his effervescent little sister, when they were told to stand at the edge of a pit and remove their clothes. And yet, it is the death of his father, all these years later, that he can hardly bear to imagine.
When Ben visits Piotrkow, his first stop is the cemetery, where his mother and sister were buried after their mass grave was unearthed following the war. "I know their bones are there," he says. "I know that place was as far as they went in life." But his father—even the reality of his death Ben had to accept only on the fact that he simply disappeared.
On Nov. 28, 1944, Ben and his father were taken from the ghetto. On Dec. 2, they arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp. A week later Ben's inmate number, 94,790, was called for transfer to another camp. His father's number, 94,813, was not. They never saw each other again. Five months later, in May 1945, a group of prisoners were marched into Theresienstadt, the final camp where Ben was held. One of the men gave Ben a hearsay report: His father had been on the march and was shot when he tried to escape. Just days later Theresienstadt was liberated.
"I go almost crazy when I think about it," Ben says. "He was killed like a dog and buried like a dog. Somewhere in a hole, and I'll never know what place he was killed. I just imagine they threw him in a dustbin or buried him in a place where there is no sign of anything." Felled like a tree in a forest with no one to hear, no place to visit and nothing but Ben's memory to prove that he existed at all. "I didn't expect to feel this way now," he says, quietly. "And I find it very difficult to digest." More and more difficult, as the funerals of The Boys come separated no longer by years but by months.
"It must be that I know I am older, and I've lost so many friends. I'm going through a second stage of loss. And this time it's for ...," he pauses. "Before, when I was losing friends, I was young. I didn't want to die. I had life in front of me." He had a heart full of survivor's gratitude and a world to mend. "Now I'm facing a biological clock," he says. "It's the end of the game."
The struggle of man against power," Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
And so Ben fights for unpleasant remembering against a forgetting that could be so pleasant. He doesn't need the stack of famous psychology experiments to tell him that many humans, when given instructions by an authority figure, will carry out sadistic actions.
He fights because the line between good and evil is often thin, and because the memories and the lives of his parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and The Boys have to mean that it is possible to thicken that line. He fights because as long as he remembers, they live with him, so he doesn't have to feel guilty for having survived.
Next May, again, Ben will remind his Boys that they have left the world better than they found it, but that they must do more. And that if they can do more, then so can future generations. He has brought their children and grandchildren into the '45 Aid Society, and they now outnumber the original Boys.
When he left the concentration camp, Ben walked with optimism into a world he thought would be primed for tolerance and cooperation. In the Warsaw cemetery, he says with a smile, is the grave of L.L. Zamenhof, who in the late 19th century created a single language, Esperanto, that he hoped would unite the entire world. Esperanto failed to take hold, but Ben still sees universal languages. Take the Olympics. "When athletes come together, they don't think like their leaders," he says, recalling the Soviet athletes he befriended. He has attended nearly every Summer Games for 50 years and has a "distinguished guest" pass for weightlifting in London.
But he is dismayed that the IOC rejected calls for a moment of silence in London to remember the Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists in Munich in 1972. "They were Olympians," Ben says. It troubles him, like the starving African orphans on TV infomercials who bring tears to his slate-blue eyes, and like the intolerance and killing he sees in the news.
King Matt, beautiful though his principles were, was ultimately proved naive. Rival kings became envious, soldiers grew restless, and in the end Matt was exiled to a desert island.
"Every generation has to make its own mistake," Ben says. But he corrects himself. "They don't have to, but it seems like they do it. But you can't live thinking this. You can't. You can't. You've always got to live with hope that things will be better. One thing I'm certain of, people are capable of a lot."
A lot of good, or a lot of bad? "Both," he says. "Both."