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The Strength To Carry On
DAVID EPSTEIN
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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The struggle of man against power," Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

And so Ben fights for unpleasant remembering against a forgetting that could be so pleasant. He doesn't need the stack of famous psychology experiments to tell him that many humans, when given instructions by an authority figure, will carry out sadistic actions.

He fights because the line between good and evil is often thin, and because the memories and the lives of his parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and The Boys have to mean that it is possible to thicken that line. He fights because as long as he remembers, they live with him, so he doesn't have to feel guilty for having survived.

Next May, again, Ben will remind his Boys that they have left the world better than they found it, but that they must do more. And that if they can do more, then so can future generations. He has brought their children and grandchildren into the '45 Aid Society, and they now outnumber the original Boys.

When he left the concentration camp, Ben walked with optimism into a world he thought would be primed for tolerance and cooperation. In the Warsaw cemetery, he says with a smile, is the grave of L.L. Zamenhof, who in the late 19th century created a single language, Esperanto, that he hoped would unite the entire world. Esperanto failed to take hold, but Ben still sees universal languages. Take the Olympics. "When athletes come together, they don't think like their leaders," he says, recalling the Soviet athletes he befriended. He has attended nearly every Summer Games for 50 years and has a "distinguished guest" pass for weightlifting in London.

But he is dismayed that the IOC rejected calls for a moment of silence in London to remember the Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists in Munich in 1972. "They were Olympians," Ben says. It troubles him, like the starving African orphans on TV infomercials who bring tears to his slate-blue eyes, and like the intolerance and killing he sees in the news.

King Matt, beautiful though his principles were, was ultimately proved naive. Rival kings became envious, soldiers grew restless, and in the end Matt was exiled to a desert island.

"Every generation has to make its own mistake," Ben says. But he corrects himself. "They don't have to, but it seems like they do it. But you can't live thinking this. You can't. You can't. You've always got to live with hope that things will be better. One thing I'm certain of, people are capable of a lot."

A lot of good, or a lot of bad? "Both," he says. "Both."

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