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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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Do you think it's too gory for a 15-year-old?" Arza Helfgott asks her husband. She wants to know whether she should take their 15-year-old grandson to a screening of a film presentation of the stage production of Frankenstein at London's National Theatre.

Her husband is the wrong person to ask. Ben Helfgott loves his wife of 46 years deeply, dearly—she is inches taller and likes to plant a kiss atop his bald pate when she leaves their house in London's Harrow district—but he won't put a moment's thought into this question. He is sure the boy will be fine, Frankenstein or no Frankenstein, gore or no gore. Ben smirks. He is 82, and he is thinking of what he had seen by the time he was 15.

He was not quite 10 when he saw the fire menagerie. It was Sept. 3, 1939, the last Sunday of summer vacation in Poland. But it would be more than five years before Ben would go back to school. In the early morning hours the main street of Piotrkow, where the Helfgotts lived, had been blasted into rubble by German bombers.

The Helfgott family, in horse and carriage, fled eastward to Sulejow, a town of 5,000. It was just nine miles away but a world removed. People walked the streets casually under a brilliant morning sun. Right away, Ben found a group of like-minded boys eager to chase one another around a plaza. But the interlude of normality was short-lived.

In the early afternoon there was a dull whistle and then earsplitting thunder as incendiary bombs fell onto a village of perfect tinder, its houses made of wood and thatch.

Everything caught fire. Horses, cows, cats, dogs and people were on fire, running frantically, aimlessly, in every direction, as if they could escape the flames clinging to their backs. Ben's mother, Sara, and his father, Moshe, pulled him into one of the few brick houses in Sulejow. Packed shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of other people, they waited.

As quickly as it came, the bombing stopped, and there was dead silence in the house. A man started to chant the Shema Yisrael, one of the most important Hebrew prayers and one that Jews hope to say right before they die. The entire house joined in a somber drone. When the prayer ended, like a rodeo gate the door flew open and everyone sprinted for the forest.

Ben clung to his father as the planes buzzed low. Their machine guns clattered, and all around people fell. When the guns stopped, the shouting began.

Those who had reached the forest were calling out names: Yiddish names, Polish names, names of children and spouses who were already dead. Some of the people who had been on fire moments earlier managed to slink into the woods, their bodies still smoldering and smoking as they cried for help. The sickly sweet smell of burning flesh would never leave Ben. More than 70 years later, when he thinks about it, his nose wrinkles.

In a sense, Ben Helfgott, like Ben Button, has lived in reverse. He experienced more deaths of his friends and family members during his second decade of life than he has in his ninth. And he is more muscular now, at 82, than he was at 15.

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