Inspiring Women, no 15: in the last of this series, Helen Bamber tells the story of a concentration camp survivor who refused to give in to hate...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, special supplement
Helen Bamber, OBE, is a British psychotherapist who helped create Amnesty International, Freedom from Torture and the Helen Bamber Foundation for the victims of human-rights violations. She met her nominee, Frau Mamechka, at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
In 1945, at the end of the second world war, I went with the Jewish Relief Unit to work with survivors from the concentration camps. I went to Belsen and to another camp, Kaunitz. Our headquarters were in a small village called Eilshausen, which was really in the middle of nowhere. It’s very difficult in a few words to describe the atmosphere after such carnage, but there was a constant little army of ragged people who turned up looking for some kind of help. One day this elderly lady—well I thought she was elderly, but at that time it was difficult to age people—very upright, and still very dignified, came into our headquarters. She was German, but she had been married to a Jewish man, whom she referred to very proudly as a "man of letters". She had elected to go with him on the train to the concentration camp. I remember her telling me how she spat into his mouth to try to give him some kind of liquid because they were in such bad conditions. He was killed and she survived. I think she’d walked a very long way to come to us, but really there was nowhere for her to go. She didn’t fit in in Germany, she didn’t fit in at the camp, where many refugees were housed—Belsen held people until 1950. So she lived with us. She slept and ate with us.
And she changed us. Our behaviour altered in her presence, out of respect. Instead of wolfing down our food, and laughing loudly, and swearing a lot, our language changed, we stopped smoking. She brought us an order, a kind of serenity really. Sometimes we read poetry, and we would ask her to listen, and she loved that. She spoke English. Not very well, but she spoke it.
She never complained. She never spoke ill of anybody. She ate very carefully and very economically. She played the piano and we all had to sing Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy". We had terrible voices and she used to put her hands over her ears at the noise. But she never demanded anything—except that we sang better.
I grew very fond of her, and she of me, and we used to go on long walks together in the woods. She never spoke of hatred. She only spoke of sadness. She had no children. Her husband was her life. We never spoke about Germany. I talked to her a lot about England and the countryside and she used to take my hand. She wore a long skirt and a shirt and a man’s jacket. I’m very short and she was very tall. We must have looked a quite extraordinary pair.
She had been with us for two, perhaps three months, and then I had to go and work in one of the camps for a few weeks, and when I came back she had gone. I asked everyone, but nobody knew how or why or where she had gone. I was so upset and angry, but you see, that’s how it was after the war. People came and people went.
What did she do for me? She taught me not to hate. She taught me to understand—as a girl of 20, who could have easily hated as a result of what I saw. I could have hated everyone who had anything to do with Germany, but there she was, this proud woman, with her dignity and learning and music, and her belongings tied into a bundle. In a way she protected me. She was something from the past. She carried something of what was good in Germany, what could be salvaged. And she taught me everything that made me understand what I had to do in the future: not just to work, as I’ve done all my life, with survivors, but to understand something beyond that: to respect the need for the protection of the vulnerable. And this woman summed everything up for me, this educated, refined elderly lady who belonged nowhere, she above all was the person who inspired me to do the work that I’m doing today.
Photograph: Women collect their bread ration from a camp cookhouse at Bergen-Belsen, shortly after its liberation in April 1945 (Imperial War Museum)
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