Meeting Helen Bamber

Helen Bamber, whose death at the age of 89 has just been reported, was a 19 year old nurse when she volunteered to go into the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp to help survivors. Nowadays the Foundation which bears her name still helps victims of persecution. When Charlie Pottins interviewed Helen for Jewish Socialist in 1995 she was working at the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture, which she helped found.

Meeting Helen Bamber

HELEN BAMBER  at Medical Foundation. (photo Simon Lynn).

This November the Medical Foundation commemorates its 10th anniversary. When I called at their north London premises on a Saturday afternoon, I found a relaxed, homely atmosphere, a couple of mothers with toddlers, and a children’s art class due to start. I asked Helen how her work began, when she went into Belsen.

‘I was brought up to know about persecution, of Jews and others. My father felt it very deeply. He had worked tirelessly in the late 1930s to help people out of Nazi Germany. There was a group trying to help refugees. They weren’t all Jewish. There were Quakers and churchmen. Our home was often filled with refugees. I heard many of their stories.

‘My father’s family came from Russia and Poland, but he was a good linguist and spoke German perfectly. We listened to the broadcasts from Germany. It was like an invasion in the house, to have those strident voices, particularly Hitler’s, ranting and raving, filled with hatred.

‘We had fascists in this country too. My aunt was very much to the left, and worked in the East End for many years. She was involved in the Battle of Cable Street. So the whole question of racism and fascism, and persecution, was very close.

‘I felt a little cut off from my contemporaries, from people who wouldn’t believe what was going on. So I grew up rather quickly. It wasn’t possible to shut reality out.

‘During the war I did visualise the possibility of the Germans reaching here, and was in little doubt what would happen if they did. We knew about the concentration camps. My father lobbied decision-makers, he tried to alert people to what was going on. It was very painful, watching his unhappiness.

Horror and heroism

‘A year before the end of the war I decided to try and work for the rehabilitation of people who’d been in the concentration camps. I joined the Jewish Relief Unit which worked under the UN training people to go to Germany and Greece to work in former concentration camps.

‘We were not the first to enter Belsen. We arrived after Camp 1 had been burnt down. Many of the former inmates were housed in what had been German barracks. These were very grim and terribly overcrowded. People were still debilitated, and many died.

‘Gradually, over time, they began to recover. At some point, it seemed there was no solution for these people. Nobody actually wanted them. Most of the people in the camp were Jewish.  Polish, Russian and other people had begun to trickle back to their countries, but the Jews of Europe - many of whom flocked to Belsen to find relations - had nowhere to go. Some remained in the camp for years. It didn’t close until 1953.

‘When the camps were first liberated, there were feelings of outrage, compassion and disbelief. People began to group together, formed committees, and elected spokespeople to demand from the authorities some change in their circumstances, even to be allowed to travel. Attitudes changed. Attitudes hardened.

‘People who were by this time called ‘Displaced Persons' were seen as a nuisance. In some of the soldiers compassion changed to irritation and hostility. The very thing for which we were all working - restoration, rehabilitation, empowerment - became reason for disapproval and the focus for hostility.

What I remember most were the stories people told over and over again. It took a long time for me to realise that telling the stories was very important, and bearing witness on my part was equally important.

‘Nothing I could do would eradicate their memories, but bearing witness was important. I learnt this lesson in the camps of Germany. Some of the stories were so horrific it was difficult to listen. But there were also stories of incredible heroism. Not the sort we were brought up to believe or understand. People say “Why didn’t they resist?” I have given up trying to get people to understand that terrible machinery that was Nazi persecution, the science that could destroy and recycle people as though they were pieces of material.

‘I could give many examples of how people resisted. But they didn’t fit into the Sunday war film Errol Flynn sort of heroism.

Nowhere to Go

‘I also believe that if countries had opened their doors, readily and generously, to that bedraggled group of people after liberation, if there had been a policy to share responsibility for their future, we might have seen a very different situation in Israel today. Realizing they were not wanted, people began to plan for their future in Israel, there had always been a Zionist movement, but I didn’t find many people who wanted to go there at first. Over time, the need to have somewhere to go became for them a need to go to the land of Israel.

‘I’ve been to Palestine. I didn’t feel at home. I don’t agree with the torture and persecution of Palestinians. But I do have a long memory; and fervour for a national home didn’t just happen. It developed because of a whole history of persecution, and in the final analysis, of nowhere for people to go after the concentration camps.

‘It’s a terrible tragedy upon a tragedy that the same people who were persecuted have become perpetrators themselves. We must all take some responsibility for this.

‘But I’m pleased to see that there are Israelis who oppose what is going on, who work with Palestinians to change things, such as the Association of Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights and Betselem. These good, courageous Israelis are working for a better future.  I wish they had a better press outside Israel.


‘Recent commemorations of Auschwitz and Belsen indicate there is greater understanding of the tragedy than there was immediately after the war and in the 1950s and ‘60s. In those years people were very resistant to hearing about the Holocaust. I’m pleased too that documentaries and broadcasts have revealed the true extent of the horror. I heard stories and saw things that are truly unbearable. I think the 50th anniversary somehow enabled people to speak for the first time and to be heard.

‘There is a deeper understanding about war and persecution but not of what we can do about it. It seems so difficult for people and governments to make logical links. If you provide Saddam Hussein, for example, with equipment, with gas, with arms, you cannot be too suprised if he uses them in a way that offends you. You cannot be part of a whole industry of war, and not expect war.

‘While individuals feel very worried about the world situation, we seem unable to stop it. I’ve spoken to many MPs who still say “If we don’t arm so-and-so, someone else will.” There’s money in war and the machinery of war.
‘The psychology of war, of violence, is another matter. Organisations like my own Medical Foundation are concerned with this. Many people address as best they can the question: “What enables someone to persecute, or torture another person, to treat them as a lesser being?” It’s still vexing psychologists and psychiatrists. I find it hopeful that more people today concern themselves with this subject of violence and evil, and try to examine it. But we’ve a long way to go.

Working with survivors

‘I worked in Amnesty International, and started the Medical group of Amnesty’s British section which became the Medical Foundation in November 1985. We’ve worked with more than 8,000 people, from over 65 countries. But torture exists in over 100 countries according to Amnesty International.

‘It’s a mistake to think everybody suffers a high degree of post-traumatic stress and needs psychological help. But everybody is affected by torture. Their interaction with families and friends may be complicated, often blunted by their experiences. Learning to trust fellow human beings again can be a slow process.

‘Physical injuries can be repaired or to some extent alleviated. But the memory of torture remains and can be compounded by time. Very flexible, holistic responses are necessary when treating people who have been tortured. It’s more to do with releasing people from a form of bondage (which is the purpose of torture) than of looking for a “cure”.

‘At the same time, we have to realise we are working with survivors. Just like the survivors of the Holocaust, they have something within themselves which fought to survive. It is that element, that core component, that you have to find and work with.

‘Many of the people we help were perfectly normal, articulate human beings prior to being tortured. We don’t see them as ill, sick people, but as normal people reacting to an abnormal situation. There is a tendency to “pathologise” torture and its victims. We work hard to avoid this, to avoid giving labels. This is a safe place for people to express their anger. I regret that Holocaust survivors did not have this opportunity.

‘There is enormous interest in the work we do, both in our models of care and the way we combine practical help. We have a core staff of 42, which apart from a clinical staff made up of a psychiatrist, a woman physician who works mainly with women who have been sexuallly tortured or raped, a child psychotherapist, a family therapist, caseworkers etc, includes a clinical administrator, a lawyer, a fundraiser, and a press and information officer.

‘But the Medical Foundation could not give as comprehensive a service as it does without the dedicated help of over 75 volunteer health professionals - physicians, surgeons, medical specialists, psychotherapists, osteopaths, art therapists and an art teacher for our children. There are too many to mention them all.

‘We’re now exporting our skills and we have tra nmg exchanges with workers in other coun- trie- Our training philosophy is about empowering people at local and community level rather than imposing a Western model of care.

'Refugees very often form community centres. It’s very important for us to work with them, not just for their language skills but for our understanding of their culture. We have some 30 interpreters taking part in our therapeutic programm, and expanding knowledge of cultures, languages and issues. You have to be humble, and learn a hell of a lot, or you might as well pack up and go home.

‘Everybody here is on first name terms. If you hear someone referred to as ‘Doctor’ it is ‘Doctor Jill’, or ‘Doctor Jack’, and the title is soon dropped. It’s a place of learning, very vigorous, very lively. On a Saturday we have a children’s art group. These child en have suffered, or witnessed torture, or had to t ce parents who could no longer parent, because ot ll they had suffered.’

I mentioned children I’d met in Bosnia. Helen smiled, and nodded, asking me whereabouts I’d been. She told me that two of her staff, a psychiatrist and a social worker, had just returned from working in Tuzla.

Asked about government attitudes to the Medical Foundation’s work, Helen Bamber said: ‘The Medical Foundation documents cases of torture, sometimes in support of an asylum claim. We have become increasingly concerned about the Government’s restrictive measures in dealing with asylum seekers. We are concerned that people who have been tortured may be hindered in their attempts to reach safety and, once here, will face procedures which could result in their being returned to face further torture and persecution.

‘We know that this has happened in some cases, with grave consequences, and we are deeply concerned for our clients. We have made our views known to the Government, the media and the public, and we will continue to do so.

‘Sometimes when I read headlines I’m reminded of the 1930s. “Lock up camps for migrant cheats”; “Bogus refugees”; “Illegal immigrants”. All these terms are created to confuse the public so people no longer understand that refugees are entitled under international law to seek asylum if they have a well-founded fear of persecution.

‘We have had lots of Jewish volunteers and help from people in the Jewish community. I’ve spoken in Liberal synagogues. I think its terribly important for the Jewish community to see beyond their Jewishness. I feel I can say that because I am Jewish, and I know that it’s very important to work for our community, but also for wider communities. Until we make these links, we will be isolated.

‘I’ll end up on a little story. I work with a group of former Far East prisoners of war who are still suffering from their experiences of torture and witness to atrocity. I told them about my experience of going to Belsen. Belsen had a very conspicuous smell, not really offensive, rather like the smell of geraniums, a damp, sweet smell. Sometimes I go out on the patio and I smell the geraniums, I am not quite sure why. After the meeting one of these elderly men, from a Scottish Border town, came up to me and said ‘I understand why you smell the geraniums.’ We have to make these links and try and bond with others."

  • As well as giving this interview, Helen Bamber agreed to speak at a JSG public meeting in London. Just before she was due to begin a young guy slipped in at the back of the audience. Although I knew this comrade, I knew nothing about him apart from where he was from. Helen must have recognised him too, because she went over to greet him and ask how he was.  As they chatted I realised he must have been one of the Medical Foundation's clients. We had not heard his story. But Helen Bamber had, and remembered him.
  • At the same meeting, which I was chairing, Helen asked to join the JSG, and I had to ask if anyone had a membership application form. I don't think we ever chased her up about doing anything as a member. She was doing more important work. But I'm proud that she felt close enough to identify with us.
  • In 2002 Helen Bamber stepped down as director of the Medical Foundation to concentrate on her work with patients. Then in 2005, recognising changing patterns of global violence and oppression, she launched the Helen Bamber Foundation to help those affected by all forms of ill-treatment, including slavery, sexual violence and trafficking, and to take up their cause.

This article appeared in Autumn 1995 issue (no.34) of Jewish Socialist magazine.

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Posted: 22 August 2014