Sir Ben witnessed and suffered unimaginable horrors during the Second World War. Born to a Jewish family in Poland, his home town of Piotrków was heavily bombed at the start of the war. He survived the infamous Buchenwald, Schlieben and Theresienstadt concentration camps, losing his parents and little sister to the Nazi regime. He and his other sister, Mala, were the only surviving members of their family. When he was finally liberated by Russian forces, the young Ben weighed less than six stone (38 kilos). Aged 15, he was one of around 300 children flown to England in Lancaster bombers in 1945, where he started a new life in Windermere in the Lake District.
He attended Plaistow Grammar and passed A level exams before going on to study Economics at Southampton in 1949, leaving after a year to set up his own business making dresses. During his time at the University, Sir Ben was heavily involved in sports – particularly athletics, including shot put, discus and high jump – and also table tennis. But weightlifting was to become his real passion.
I have always been competitive, and I liked the fairness involved in competing with simply a bar and weights – whoever lifts the heaviest, succeeds.
Sir Ben had discovered the sport by chance several years earlier, when he came across people lifting weights at Hampstead Heath ponds and asked for a chance to try, surprising onlookers with his success. “Soon after my arrival [at Southampton], I unexpectedly received a set of bar bells and weight lifting equipment organised by my guardian in London. What a thrill that was!” He recalls.
Having taken British citizenship, Sir Ben went on to Britain’s Olympic weightlifting team at the Games of Melbourne in 1956 and Rome in 1960. In 1958, he was the weightlifting lightweight bronze medallist at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and British champion between 1954 and 1960. He is one of only two known survivors of Nazi concentration camps to compete in the Olympic Games. “Representing GB at the Olympics was one of the proudest moments of my life. As a little boy in Poland I always admired England and my only regret is that I wish my parents had been there to see me,” says Sir Ben.
Championing Holocaust remembrance and education
Sir Ben retired from his garment manufacturing business in his early 50s and devoted his time to Holocaust remembrance and education, having founded and led the 45 Aid Society Holocaust Survivors Group.
He has been integral to efforts to establish a national Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, serving as President of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. He was also a member of the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission, whose work led to the development of a national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in London.
I felt I had a duty to all those who did not survive to tell their story and to teach the lessons.
Sir Ben has received numerous honours and awards over the years. In 1994, he received the Polish Knights Cross of the Order of Merit. In 2005 he was awarded the Commanders Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, and in 2000 he received an MBE.
Sir Ben has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Parkes Institute, one of the world’s leading centres for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, based at the University. And, in 2006, the University recognised his outstanding achievements by awarding him an Honorary Doctorate, which he returned to Highfield Campus to receive.
My stay at Southampton was a very happy one and I made many deep and long-lasting friendships. When the Honorary Doctorate was conferred by the University, it was apparent that friendship and warm hospitality were still part of the ethos.
In 2015, he received the Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award in recognition of outstanding individual volunteers, and more recently was made Freeman of the City of London. And, in November last year he was awarded a knighthood for his contribution to services to Holocaust remembrance and education, praised for his ‘determination, dedication and unparalleled perseverance’.
Sir Ben is a shining example of an alumnus who has overcome immense adversity and dedicated himself to educating people to live a life of tolerance. When we asked him which of his great achievements he is most proud of, he simply replied: “It may be a cliché, but my family – children and grandchildren – are my proudest achievement of all.”