Ben Helfgott by Frances Segelman, Lady Petchey

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    Sir Ben Helfgott,    by Frances Segelman, Lady Petchey,    2018,    NPG 7084,    Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London
Holocaust survivor and weightlifting champion Ben Helfgott, by Frances Segelman.
Sir Ben Helfgott
by Frances Segelman, Lady Petchey
painted bronze, 2018
23 5/8 in. x 12 1/4 in. (600 mm x 310 mm) overall
NPG 7084
Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 28 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Ben Helfgott (1929–2023) was a Jewish Holocaust The killing of around six million Jewish people, as well as other groups such as Roma, disabled and gay people, by the German Nazi government between 1941 and 1945. survivor and weightlifting champion. He survived terrible conditions in Concentration camp A type of prison within a wall or fence where a group of people (for example political prisoners or a specific cultural group) are kept in extremely bad conditions. after his hometown in Poland was invaded and Occupy To take over and control another place, especially a country, using military force. by Nazi Belonging to or connected with the National Socialist Party, which controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. German forces during the Second World War.

Helfgott arrived in Britain in 1945, aged 15, as part of a group of young Jewish Refugee A person who has been forced to leave their country or home, because there is a war or for political, religious or social reasons. . He went on to become a weightlifter and to captain the British weightlifting teams in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games An international sports competition held every four years in a different country. . He believed in the importance of educating people about the Holocaust and remained a campaigner for Holocaust education, anti-racism and peace until he died at the age of 93.

This portrait is one of a group by the artist Frances Segelman (born 1949) honouring British Holocaust survivors.

Analysing the portrait

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    Sir Ben Helfgott,    by Frances Segelman, Lady Petchey,    2018,    NPG 7084,    Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Ben Helfgott, by Frances Segelman, Lady Petchey, 2018

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Helfgott holds his head upright with his chin slightly raised.
    • Although we can only see a small part of his body, it appears strong and straight, as if he is holding his shoulders back.
    • He looks past us slightly, into the distance, with a calm expression. His bright eyes and slightly raised eyebrows help to give us the sense that he is alert.
    • He appears thoughtful and dignified.
    • This portrait sculpture shows Helfgott as an older man.
    • He has lost his hair, and his face is heavily lined.
    • The portrait was made when Helfgott was 89 years old.
    • Helfgott is wearing a smart jacket, shirt and tie.
    • Although Helfgott was known for his success as a weightlifter, and continued to lift weights in his later life, Segelman has not shown him as a sportsman.
    • Segelman made this sculpture when Helfgott was almost 90 and still helping to educate people about the Holocaust The killing of around six million Jewish people, as well as other groups such as Roma, disabled and gay people, by the German Nazi government between 1941 and 1945. and its terrible consequences.
    • Helfgott’s upright pose, raised chin and alert eyes suggest both a physical and inner strength and determination.
    • His smart shirt, jacket and tie help to give us a sense of dignity, and that he is still active in the world at the age of almost 90.
    • The sculpture has been Cast An object made by pouring hot liquid metal, or other materials, into a mould. in bronze, a very strong and long-lasting material.
    • Segelman has said: ‘I had met [Helfgott] before and he looked so terribly frail. But then I realised that he wasn’t, because while I was sculpting him, the strength came out.’  
    • Helfgott said sports training gave him an inner strength and a sense of fair play and that he ‘could never have survived the Holocaust The killing of around six million Jewish people, as well as other groups such as Roma, disabled and gay people, by the German Nazi government between 1941 and 1945. without that strength’.
I was determined to warn contemporary society of the potential for genocide if the lessons of the Holocaust are ignored.
Ben Helfgott, 2018

Who was Ben Helfgott?

  • Ben Helfgott was born into a Jewish family in Piotrków, Poland.
  • In 1939, when he was nine years old, Nazi Belonging to or connected with the National Socialist Party, which controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. Germany invaded Poland. This marked the start of the Second World War.
  • Helfgott, his family and thousands of other Jewish people were forced to move into the Ghetto The area of a town where Jewish people were forced to live by Nazi German forces. in his hometown. Living conditions were terrible, with families living in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions.  
  • In August 1942, almost 22,000 of the 24,000 Jewish people living there were sent to a Concentration camp A type of prison within a wall or fence where a group of people (for example political prisoners or a specific cultural group) are kept in extremely bad conditions. . 
  • Later that year, Helfgott’s mother, younger sister and many others were taken to local woods and murdered.
  • In August 1944, Helfgott, his father and his sister, Mala, were sent to Concentration camp A type of prison within a wall or fence where a group of people (for example political prisoners or a specific cultural group) are kept in extremely bad conditions. and became separated from each other. Helfgott later learned that his father had been murdered by Nazi concentration camp guards just a few days before the end of the War.
  • After the end of the War in 1945, aged 15, Helfgott arrived in Britain as part of a group of young Jewish Refugee A person who has been forced to leave their country or home, because there is a war or for political, religious or social reasons. taken to Windermere in the Lake District. They became known as the Windermere Children.
  • In 1947, he was reunited with his sister, Mala, who had also been brought to the UK as a Refugee A person who has been forced to leave their country or home, because there is a war or for political, religious or social reasons. .
  • In 1948, Helfgott began weightlifting and went on to become a British champion.
  • He won medals at the Maccabiah Games An international sports competition held in Israel every four years. The Games are open to Jewish athletes from around the world and to all Israeli citizens. and Commonwealth Games An international sports competition held every four years. The Games are open to the United Kingdom and some other countries, including most of the countries that used to be part of the British Empire. , and captained the British weightlifting team in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games An international sports competition held every four years in a different country. .
  • In 1963, Helfgott helped found the ’45 Aid Society. The Society supports child Holocaust The killing of around six million Jewish people, as well as other groups such as Roma, disabled and gay people, by the German Nazi government between 1941 and 1945. survivors who were brought to Britain after the Second World War and their families. It also champions Holocaust education.
  • Helfgott continued to campaign for and support Holocaust education throughout his adult life.
  • He was Knighted A special award given to a man by the British king or queen and has the title ‘Sir’ before his name. for this work in 2018.

Who is Frances Segelman?

  • Frances Segelman (Lady Petchey) was born in Leeds to Jewish parents.
  • Her father’s family were involved in the cinema business – she has said she learned a lot about ‘the character behind the face’ through watching films at the cinema.
  • Segelman has sculpted a wide variety of public figures from the world of entertainment, politics and sport, as well as members of the Royal family, including King Charles.
  • She often creates her sculptures in front of an audience, working very quickly. She has described this as ‘speed sculpting’ and says she can only work quickly if an audience is there to watch her.
  • In 2017, Segelman was commissioned to sculpt a portrait of the Holocaust The killing of around six million Jewish people, as well as other groups such as Roma, disabled and gay people, by the German Nazi government between 1941 and 1945. survivor Arek Hersh. Since then, she has continued to sculpt as many Holocaust survivors as possible.
  • She has said that she found the idea of sculpting Holocaust survivors ‘harrowing’ at first, but then saw it more positively, as a ‘life-changing’ experience.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This portrait is one of a group by Frances Segelman honouring British Holocaust The killing of around six million Jewish people, as well as other groups such as Roma, disabled and gay people, by the German Nazi government between 1941 and 1945. survivors.
  • She sculpted it From life To make a portrait by looking at the actual person rather than another image or working from memory. in front of a live audience – something she has become known for doing, working very quickly.
  • The live sculpting event was organised by Yad Vashem UK Foundation, a Holocaust education charity, in honour of Helfgott who was the charity’s president.
  • Helfgott said he hoped the sculpture would be ‘made use of to tell my story and as a memorial to those who were murdered in the Holocaust’. 
  • Segelman has said that the most important part of her sculpting career has been working with Helfgott and other Holocaust survivors.
  1. What do you think Frances Segelman is saying about Ben Helfgott in this portrait?
  1. Why do you think Helfgott believed it is important for people to know about the Holocaust?
  1. Why do you think Segelman felt honoured to create portraits of Helfgott and other Holocaust survivors?