Obituary: Evelyn Bark
Thursday 24 June 1993
THE IMPACT of Evelyn Bark's dynamic personality was in inverse proportion to her stature: no taller than Queen Victoria was how she described her 5ft height in her autobiography No Time To Kill (1960). Her fluency in six languages and a working knowledge of several others, her initiative and administrative ability, and her courage and compassion made her the ideal member of the Red Cross Commission in North-west Europe, during and after the Second World War, for which she was appointed OBE in 1952. In 1967 she was one of the first women to be appointed CMG, for her 16 years' service as director of the International Affairs department of the British Red Cross.
Evelyn Bark joined the British Red Cross as a VAD at the outbreak of war in 1939. She did voluntary part-time duties in a London maternity hospital, and manned air-raid precaution posts while continuing her job at the Swedish Match Company's London office and later at the Board of Trade.
In 1944 she joined the Foreign Relations department of the British Red Cross working on the 25-word postal message scheme, which since 1940 had enabled civilians in Britain, France and Germany, to communicate with relatives anywhere in the world via the International Red Cross Tracing Agency in Geneva. When hostilites ceased, Geneva had recorded the transmission of 25 million such messages. Bark also developed the Red Cross language card to enable British doctors and nurses to communicate with the wounded of many nationalities, when interpreters were not available.
At the end of 1944, immediately after the liberation of Brussels, Bark joined the staff of the British Red Cross Commission in Europe, which worked closely with the British liberation army. The first of many senior appointments in Europe, it took her to Belgium, and later to Holland and Germany. Included in her luggage was a list of inquiries for missing people, typed on the very thinnest paper, yet weighing 111 2 1b. She set to work at once to start a tracing service for missing persons, a service which became the International Tracing Service, which has been run since 1955 by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Bark was one of the first to enter Belsen concentration camp with the Red Cross team. In Belsen, the first relief teams were confronted with 60,000 human bodies, dead, dying, or just alive, of 22 nationalities. Most of the 45,000 inmates who were still living were very sick, and 800 were dying daily from typhus. In the first hectic days, nearly everyone was involved in collecting dead bodies from the compounds, disinfecting the survivors and transferring some 2,000 of them to the hospital building which was rapidly set up. Within a week the mortality rate had dropped to about 12 a day and then to zero. Before leaving Belsen the Nazis destroyed all records, and the first job in the Red Cross tracing service was to identify everyone possible. This was a colossal task but, with the help of some internees, all the living were registered and gradually it became possible to reunite families and friends.
In April 1948, when Bark was promoted to British Red Cross Commissioner in Germany, her outstanding services in the field, organising relief work among displaced persons, won the admiration not only of her colleagues in the Red Cross but also of the Army and civilian relief authorities. She organised and was responsible, for among other things, the administration of the German Bad Pyrmont Hospital and Rehabilitation Centre for disabled service and civilian war victims.
On the withdrawal of the Commission in September 1949, Bark became Foreign Relations Adviser at the Headquarters of the British Red Cross. Here she organised the society's medical commission to Jordan, where the majority of a million Palestinian refugees had sought asylum at the end of 1948. (The large-scale emergency relief operation was covered for 18 months by the Red Cross until the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, NRWA, was formed.)
In 1950 she undertook a Red Cross mission to Ethiopia to assist the national Red Cross Society to re-establish itself. In 1953 she visited the sheikhdoms in the Arabian Gulf to explore the possibility of establishing National (Red Crescent) Societies there.
Between 1954 and 1956 she accompanied the British Red Cross Vice-Chairman, the then Countess of Limerick, to the Soviet Union, Poland, China, and then Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria at a time when few Westerners were able to visit Communist countries. Not only did these visits strengthen Red Cross relationships, transcending political and ideological boundaries, but they also initiated closer co-operation in tracing and welfare inquiries.
Bark was responsible at operational level for British Red Cross assistance overseas in disasters and other emergencies. Her organisational ability and gift for friendship and sympathetic understanding of different cultures, earned her a world-wide reputation. In 1956 she was requested by the League of Red Cross Societies to co- ordinate relief for Hungarian refugees in Austria, and to join the league's Disaster Relief Advisory Committee. In 1960 she visited Morocco to see the physiotherapist teams work among the oil paralysis victims. Following the earthquake in Iran in 1962, when the first British television appeal raised pounds 400,000, she went to the devastated areas to oversee the relief expenditure. In 1964 she went to Yemen to monitor a British medical team working with the International Committee of the Red Cross care for war casualties.
In spite of ill-health in childhood following an accident, which might well have proved an insuperable obstacle to those with less determination, her courage and commitment to Red Cross ideals carried her successfully through testing situations. Bark's warm outgoing personality, the cosmopolitan life she had led and her impish sense of humour made her a most amusing raconteur. A private person, she loved in retirement entertaining friends of many nationalities. She endured the last decade of her 92- year life, , when she was afflicted by a paralysing stroke, with characteristic bravery.
Besides her British honours Evelyn Bark held the Golden Insignia of Honour for Merit by the Austrian Government. She was awarded Red Cross decorations from 10 countries - eloquent testimony to the high regard in which she was held abroad as well as in Britain.
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