We look at the life of human rights campaigner Helen Bamber who passed away last week. Helen worked with survivors to confront and manage the horror and trauma of their experiences, helping to restore dignity to those who suffered the worst human rights abuses, including Holocaust and genocide survivors.
As a young girl growing up in London in the 1930s, Helen was all too aware of the nightmare that was unfolding in Nazi Germany. Her father, a Jew of Polish descent who spoke fluent German, would tune in nightly to Radio Berlin to monitor the latest outpouring of hate. His anguish, and the determined efforts he made through his work as an accountant for a firm helping Germans trying to flee, had a profound effect on his daughter.
When the full horror of the ’Final Solution’ started to emerge at the end of World War Two, Helen, aged 20, immediately volunteered for work at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, helping to rehabilitate survivors.
On her arrival, she says, there were ‘still awful sights, amputees, gangrene, festering sores. People still looked terribly emaciated... sometimes when you were searching through things you were reminded of the enormity of it: once we came across a vast pile of shoes, sorted according to sizes, including children’s, all neatly lined up; you were never safe from that kind of confrontation.’
Helen recalls her first experience of confronting the many traumatised survivors. She explained that ‘above all else, there was a need to tell you everything, over and over and over again. They would need to hold on to you, and many of them still had very thin arms... it wasn't so much grief as a pouring out of some ghastly vomit, like a kind of horror...’ The urge to share these horrific stories is a symptom of traumatic experience, and is a therapeutic way of normalising the trauma that many Holocaust and genocide survivors had experienced.
Helen was to stay at Belsen for two years – it remained open long after the war ended as a transit camp for those who had lost their homes. On her return to Britain, she was asked to help care for a group of orphans who had survived Auschwitz.
In 1961 she helped to establish the international human rights charity Amnesty International. Helen began meeting with refugees who had suffered from torture – she recognised the dedicated long-term care they required.
To meet that need, Helen in 1985 co-founded the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, now known as Freedom from Torture, which at the time was the sole organisation in Britain dedicated to helping survivors of torture.
More than 25,000 people from over 100 countries have been supported by the Medical Foundation's north London treatment centre, which provides services to support those suffering the aftermath of traumatic experience.
She connected her work intrinsically with her earlier experience of rehabilitating Holocaust survivors. She said: ‘I think perhaps then and now – because I am now concerned with present-day survivors from over 90 different countries – one is still bearing witness in the same way and that is the first gift you can give somebody who is a survivor’.
Helen has been praised by celebrities such as actors Emma Thompson; Colin Firth also praised her for her ability' to engage with so many desperate stories without being engulfed by them’.
In 2005, at the age of 80, Helen launched the Helen Bamber Foundation, in response to challenging patterns of global violence. The organisation built on her previous work to rehabilitate survivors of human rights violations and torture. In 1993 Helen was named European Woman of Achievement and in 1997 she was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire).
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust works with survivors of the Holocaust and genocide, including those who have experienced life in the camps to share their story and raise awareness of where hatred and discrimination can ultimately lead.
Find out more:
- Explore the life stories of Holocaust and genocide survivors
- Find out about what life was like in the camps