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The Strength To Carry On
July 09, 2012
From the depths of loss and horror in a Nazi death camp, Ben Helfgott made himself into an Olympian and helped lift his fellow survivors to lives of meaning and connection
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July 09, 2012

The Strength To Carry On

From the depths of loss and horror in a Nazi death camp, Ben Helfgott made himself into an Olympian and helped lift his fellow survivors to lives of meaning and connection

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"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."

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