The survivors’ survivor

The survivors’ survivor

For the Jewish News September 14 2018

It’s any suburban kitchen and two parents are arguing — with evident love and affection — with their grown-up son. The audience watching the film is laughing with delighted recognition.

For this is not just any suburban kitchen: it is the home of the recently knighted Sir Ben Helfgott and his wife Arza. The grown-up son is their son Maurice, who has been the driving force behind a remarkable film to tell the story called “Ben, a Bar and a Bit of a Weight”.

Ben Helfgott is possibly Britain’s best-known Holocaust survivor. But this film, made for the Helfgott family and shown for the first time at JW3 on Wednesday night, shows a different aspect to the patriarch: the bereaved teenager who arrived in Britain aged 16 and through sheer force of will, remade himself. First he became an Olympic athlete, a champion weightlifter, and then a successful businessman. At 50, the film tells us, he closed his business and devoted the rest of his life to telling the story of the Holocaust, a task he set himself because he says he owes it to those who did not survive.

The film was directed by Guy Natanel and produced by Laura Granditer, working to an almost impossible brief set for them by Maurice Helfgott, the eldest of the three Helfgott brothers. He wanted them, he said, to “capture Ben’s essence” — and the film certainly does its best to achieve that.

Sir Ben is now 88 and perhaps the first surprise of the film — particularly for those who know him only by reputation — is the strength and vigour shown by the younger Ben Helfgott in a welter of family films taken over the years. Here he is debating “forgiveness” on TV in a panel that includes the broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy; here he is showing a group of young people round his hometown in Poland, painting vivid word pictures as he speaks of where his mother and sister were arrested and eventually taken to be shot.

But the film-makers take a bold decision in how they want to tell Ben’s story before his arrival in Britain. They decide to film his nine grandchildren who are all totally familiar with what happened to their much loved grandfather. With unselfconscious charm the grandchildren, ranging in age from late teens to the youngest at six or seven, unravel Ben’s experience, and how he did not know that his sister Mala had survived.

But “Auntie Mala” — Mala Tribich, herself a dedicated Holocaust education campaigner — was in the audience, together with Enfield North MP Joan Ryan, chair of the Labour Friends of Israel, and the Conservative peer Lord Pickles — as they laughed and cried in equal measure watching the archive footage.

Some of the most fascinating material was the Olympic material, showing a young Ben weightlifting or marching with the British Olympic squad in Melbourne.

And as for the film’s title? That comes from his 2007 appearance on Desert Island Discs, in which he chose “a bar and a bit of weight” as his island luxury. But as the film shows, Ben Helfgott doesn’t really need the equipment: he exercises religiously every day, and spends the rest of his time doing what he does best — bearing witness, for those who cannot.

  • 14 September, 2018