Book Of A Lifetime: The Good Listener, By Neil Belton

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The Independent Culture

When I was a mere seven years old, I went with a friend to the cinema and before the children's film we'd gone to see, they showed a newsreel which included shots of the liberation of Belsen. I don't think I felt shock or horror because I had no idea what the images signified. I felt bewildered: who were these skeletons? How had they become like that? What would happen to them? I went home and tried to describe what I'd seen, and asked these questions, only to be told it was outrageous that the newsreel had been shown with children watching and that I should forget what I'd seen. It was to do with the war that had just finished and it was all over. But I didn't forget. I went on to become a reader of everything to do with the war – histories, biographies, memoirs – and the questions became more pressing. How could atrocities like Belsen have happened? How could human beings torture other human beings in this way? And a new question arose: could the survivors overcome their horrific experiences? Could they "forget it"? It was certainly what everyone, in the 1950s, seemed to want them to do, or if they couldn't forget then maybe they could just keep it to themselves. For so many survivors, this was their experience: what Primo Levi was to call "the ever repeated scene of the unlistened to story".

Well, as I grew up I wanted to listen and learn. But not until Neil Belton published The Good Listener in 1998 did I properly begin to understand that what happened in Belsen and other concentration camps fits into a continuing history of modern cruelty. Its framework is the life of Helen Bamber. Born in 1925, in London, she saw an advert in 1944 asking for volunteers to work with Jewish survivors of concentration camps. She joined the Jewish Relief Unit and went to Germany in 1945 as assistant to the Field Director. A good listener, she quickly realised the vacuity of normal sympathy; that something else was needed. Part of this was making herself absorb the most horrific experiences, down to every detail.

In 1946, she returned to London, and worked in various hospitals in an administrative capacity. When Amnesty International was launched in 1961, she joined and was soon elected to the executive council. She had by then long realised that state-instigated torture did not end with the Second World War in spite of UN declarations. What increasingly concerned her was the lack of treatment for victims of torture, so in 1985 she founded the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture. But this book is much more than a biography of Helen Bamber. It confronts some of the worst horrors of the modern world and tries to "bear witness" in a series of reflections which amount to a moral debate on the evil of torture. It impressed me deeply, explaining so much about what happened (and happens), dealing with ugly, distressing material in a calm, clear way.

Margaret Forster's new novel, 'Isa & May' is published by Chatto & Windus