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Phil Bayles' Holocaust blog

Phil Bayles. Photo: ITN

I am often asked the question: "who is the most interesting person you have met?" I have to say that people are often disappointed with my answer. It is not going to be Jordan. Or David Beckham. Or one of several Prime Ministers I have interviewed. Their stories are all a bit predictable and fairly well known anyway.

The most interesting interviewees tell you a story that is so unexpected and compelling that it demands your attention. Take a 12-year-old boy who defied incalculable odds to survive insatiable killers who exterminate done and a half million children. The reason he survived was simply that he was more use to the Nazis as slave labour than any other children around him.

Ben Helfgott lived in the Polish town of Piotrkow. In 1942 German soldiers shelled the town, murdered Jewish worshippers in the synagogue and forced others to dig their own graves in the woods before shooting them.Most of the rest of the town's Jewish population - around 22,000 - was transported to the gas chambers at the Treblinka concentration camp.

A handful were left behind. One was Ben's father; he was useful because he smuggled flour into the ghetto and was protected. Another was little Ben: he was useful because he was made to work in a glass factory. He was also lucky that he was strong for his age and was fed enough to keep up that strength so that he could continue to work.

When you think of any boy of 12 that you know you can attempt to place him in Ben's place. You can attempt it, but will fail because what he went through defies imagination. And his ordeal did not end in the glass factory. Even he became superfluous and was finally deported to first Buchenwald, and then to Schlieben: two concentration camps where the slave labourers were starved to death instead of gassed. His "luckier"times in the glass factory paid a dividend: he was strong enough to survive until he was liberated in Czechoslovakia in May 1945. His father's luck had not held out: he was shot just a few days earlier trying to escape from a march that the Nazis used in their last desperate days to walk starving prisoners until they dropped dead.

Ben Helfgott was now an orphan. Penniless and who knows how badly scarred emotionally by the traumas he had been subjected to. Yet he came to the UK, and despite having had virtually no education, or speaking English went to a Grammar School and eventually set up his own business.

Ask me "who is the most interesting person you have met?" and Ben will spring to mind as one of the many "ordinary" people who have shared their remarkable stories. None of our celebrities and most of our politicians do not come within a mile of them.

A young Ben Helfgott (in the white shirt) with his family. Credit: Ben Helfgott
Ben Helfgott lights a candle in memory of the Holocaust's victims. Credit: ITN

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