Skip to main navigation Skip to main content
The University of Southampton
The Parkes Institute

In Memoriam: Sir Ben Helfgott (1929-2023)

Published: 16 June 2023
Ben Helfgott

It is with the greatest sadness that we report the death of Ben Helfgott, a truly remarkable man. The Parkes Institute is proud to have had a long and memorable relationship with Ben.

Ben was born in Piotrkow, Poland, in 1929. Following the Nazi invasion at the start of the Second World War, Piotrkow had the misfortune to have the first Jewish ghetto imposed by the Nazis, a prelude to the gathering and extermination of European Jewry. Ben survived slave labour and concentration camps as a mere youngster and after liberation, ended up in Terezin concentration camp from which he, and seven hundred plus children were sent to England to recuperate – flown either to Carlisle (and then to Windermere) or the New Forest and then Wintershill Hall in Hampshire. Ben was in the former group and was part of the remarkable heritage work in Windermere, as well as documentaries and plays, to commemorate that experience.

In 1948 Ben came to study economics at what was then the University College, Southampton. Although he did not finish his degree, instead building a successful career, including with Marks & Spencer, Southampton was important to Ben. Here he developed a life time friendship with Clinton Silver who became the managing director of M&S. Through Clinton Ben maintained his close connections to the University. Ben was a natural athlete and his later triumph as an internationally renowned weight lifting champion (representing the UK in the Olympics) had its origins as a student in Southampton. Clinton Silver also remembers being woken early by Ben for training, including (remarkably given neither of them was that tall!) in pole vaulting – representing the university college when the sport was still in its infancy.

Ben was instrumental in setting up the ’45 Aid Society, a self-help group for these young Holocaust survivors which looked after the more vulnerable amongst them and later in its existence, celebrated joyous occasions such as marriages and births as a new generation came into being. Ben was at the forefront of Holocaust education and commemoration in the UK, playing a key role especially in the first permanent Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial Museum in 2000.

As one of the first to teach an extended undergraduate course on the Holocaust, it was a memorable occasion when Ben came to talk to my third year history students. For the students, Ben’s story, outlining not just the horrors he went through but the normality of everyday Jewish life in Piotrkow and the integration of the Jews in wider Polish society, was inspiring.

It will remain one of the most poignant, moving and hilarious days of my thirty odd years at the University of Southampton when Ben received his honorary degree here. The graduands present and their families witnessed an inspiring person returning to his alma mater and receiving a tribute for a life of bravery, determination and sheer decency. From the outside, all appeared smooth. As Ben’s host for the day, I felt deeply honoured and privileged, and also somewhat challenged. Seats for graduation are not easy to come by. Ben had his allocation and for good measure brought a party four times that size. The graduation office was wonderful and found space for them all in the ceremony. Ben’s party, including other survivors and their families, were like the proverbial herding of cats, going off in all directions. Ben himself disappeared just before the ceremony. As it happened, my nephew Toby, a sabbatical officer for the student’s union, was on graduation duty, attending many of the ceremonies. He found Ben going to the wrong graduation and brought him back just before our procession began! After the public orator had finished his story of Ben’s life and achievements, there was spontaneous applause. This is what this university is about.

From the graduation we went in search of Ben’s former hall of residence in Wessex Lane. I managed to deliver the party to Connaught Hall via a UniLink bus and didn’t lose one of them. That was perhaps the greatest achievement of my career.

Ben, Arza and their sons kept a strong interest in the University of Southampton and especially the Parkes Institute. Ben was always encouraging and delighted to see the progress we had made, including as a major archive, research and teaching centre on the Holocaust, as well as the world of Jewish history and culture Ben came from. We at the Parkes Institute owe so much to Ben Helfgott. Ben was a delight to be with – funny, warm and with a moral compass that will be sorely missed. We send condolences and wish a long life to his wonderful and supportive wife, Arza, and their sons Michael, Nathan and Maurice, and Ben’s sister Mala.

Tony Kushner, Southampton, 16 June 2023

Privacy Settings