45 Aid Soc reunion by Jenni Frazer for Jewish News May 3 2016
It was, perhaps, one of Ben Helfgott’s grandchildren who summed up the founder of the 45 Aid Society so precisely. It was “a huge thing”, she said, “to be so strong on the inside as well as on the outside.”
The inner strength of Polish-born Beniek Helfgott in surviving the Holocaust — and his outer strength in becoming an Olympic weightlifting champion, as well as his sterling work for Holocaust education — were celebrated this week at the 71st reunion of the Boys. These were the 732 child survivors taken in by Britain at the end of the war, boys and girls, who founded, at Ben Helfgott’s initiative, the 45 Aid Society in 1963.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who came before the event to pay his own private tribute to Mr Helfgott, told the JN: “This is an amazing event, full of love, of hope and promise. It is wonderful to have that atmosphere in these most challenging times.”
More than 400 people, survivors and members of the Second, Third, and even Fourth Generation, crowded into the ballroom at London’s Wembley Hilton for a typically raucous celebration. As Maurice Helfgott, Ben’s son and a leading member of the Second Generation, kicked off the party with a perfect opener — Mark Ronson’s UpTown Funk, accompanied by a terrific 1930s and 40s video mash-up of Hollywood stars — the survivors took to the floor and pretty much outdanced the younger participants.
Six candles were lit in memory of the six million and a pledge was made by Angela Cohen, chairman of the Second Generation, to continue the work of the 45 Aid Society. Such work, she said, in a pointed aside, should be of interest “to certain members of the Labour Party.”
It was a tacit point later made by the presence of Communities Secretary Sir Eric Pickles, who joined in the tributes made to Ben Helfgott. It was done in the form of This Is Your Life, with film and physical contributions from fellow survivors, Ben’s family — including his intrepid survivor sister, Mala Tribich — and a rather extraordinary song parody performed by five professional women who work with Ben Helfgott, ranging from Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock to the director of Holocaust Memorial Day, Olivia Marks-Woldman. All the women said fervently afterwards that they would have sung and performed for no-one but Ben.
Judge Robert Rinder hosted the Big Red Book event in place of Eamonn Andrews. He said that the book contained scores of loving and affectionate tributes, ranging from individual survivors — such as one of “the Boys”, Hanka Ziegler, whose brother Wolf had worked in the same glass factory as Ben during the Holocaust — to national organisations such as the Imperial War Museum and the new UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation.
West End star James Freedman, known as the Man of Steal, earlier gave a virtuoso performance in picking pockets. But the evening belonged to Ben Helfgott, a legendary terrible driver, the most persistent of men, who by decades of warmth, charm, and tolerance, has drawn a positive story for Britain out of the horror of the Holocaust.