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Concentration camp survivor awarded knighthood for services to Holocaust Remembrance and Education

Published: 13 June 2018
Ben Helfgott
Holocaust survivor and former Southampton student Ben Helfgott has been awarded a knighthood

An inspirational former student from the University of Southampton who survived the Holocaust and went on to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games has been awarded a knighthood in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours. For services to Holocaust Remembrance and Education.

Over the years, Helfgott has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Parkes Institute, one of the world’s leading centres for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, based at the University of Southampton. In 2006, the University recognised Helfgott’s outstanding achievements by awarding him an Honorary Doctorate.

Professor Tony Kushner of the Parkes Institute said,” ‘I am truly delighted for Ben and his family. It is recognition of his tireless work to support his fellow survivors in Britain and his international efforts to ensure that the Holocaust is taught and remembered.

“Ben has been a great advocate for the Parkes Institute and has inspired generations of our students through his powerful testimony,” Professor Kushner continued. “I will never forget the award of his honorary doctorate at the University of Southampton. It was a truly moving and happily chaotic day with Ben bringing his extended family and many friends.

I hope the Palace is ready for an even bigger invasion,” Professor Kushner enthused. “Sir Ben! Just shows what you can achieve when you don't complete an Economics degree at the University of Southampton!”

Originally from Piotrków in Poland, Ben Helfgott survived the infamous Buchenwald, Schlieben and Theresienstadt concentration camps, losing his parents and little sister to the Nazi regime. He arrived in Britain at the age of 15 in 1945 and just 11 years later, having taken British citizenship, he captained Britain’s Olympic weightlifting team at the Games of Melbourne in 1956 and Rome in 1960. In 1958, he was the weightlifting lightweight bronze medallist at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and British champion between 1954-60. He is one of only two known survivors of Nazi concentration campus to compete in the Olympic Games.

After his liberation from Theresienstadt by the Russian Army, Helfgott was brought to England in August 1945 where he started a new life in Windermere. He was lucky enough to attend Plaistow Grammar and pass A-level exams before going to study Economics at Southampton but left after a year to set up his own business making dresses.

Helfgott retired from the business in his 50’s to devote more time to working with other Holocaust survivors and later founded the Holocaust Survivors ’45 Aid Society to support numerous former camp inmates who have since fallen on hard times.

He’s been integral to efforts to establish a national Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, serving as President of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Helfgott was also a member of the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission whose work led to the development of a national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in London.

“I didn’t expect the knighthood – I couldn’t believe it; I’m choked,” said Helfgott, now 88,  following the announcement. “All my adult life I have spoken openly about the important lessons to be learned from what happened in the Holocaust. My purpose has been that all people should better understand and fight against the destructive forces of intolerance, discrimination and prejudice.”

In 1994, Helfgott received the Polish Knights Cross of the Order of Merit and in 2005 he was awarded the Commanders Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. Recipient of an MBE in 2000, Helfgott was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Southampton.

In 2015, he received the Prime Minister's Points of Light Award in recognition of outstanding individual volunteers and more recently was made Freeman of the City of London.

 

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Ben Helfgott captained the Great Britain weightlifting teams at the Olympic Games of 1956 and 1960.

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