First person: 'I tended to the survivors at Belsen'

Helen Bamber, 83

I was born to a non-orthodox Jewish family in north London. My father helped refugees escape Nazi Germany; some would stay at our house. I suffered from bronchitis and was always in bed, so visitors would come and tell me about what was happening, what they'd lost and the cruelty they'd escaped.

My father became increasingly depressed by the state of the world; I felt that something must be retrieved from this mess. In my late teens, I trained in secretarial work and administration, and was appointed to the National Association of Mental Health, which treated returning soldiers and airmen. There I gained considerable insight into trauma. Aged 19, I joined the Jewish Relief Unit (JRU): a small group of doctors, nurses and others with relevant skills, under the auspices of UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).

In 1945, I was made personal assistant to the director of the JRU, tending to survivors of the Holocaust at Belsen concentration camp. I will never forget that dreadful train ride. Along the tracks, German children held out their hands, begging soldiers onboard for food. I had been bought up to loathe the Nazis, but seeing these pathetic little figures I had a sudden understanding of war and what it does. My first impression of Belsen was the smell: dank, sweet and quite distinctive. I asked a colleague: "What is that?" and she replied: "That's the smell of death."

Belsen was a dreadful place. The survivors needed to tell me everything over and over. I had to take it all. It was important that I held them. Often I had to rock with them. Many spoke in Yiddish but we didn't need language; I just had to hang on to them and receive it, as if it belonged to me. In the act of taking it, of showing I was available, I was playing some useful role. This was the first great lesson: to receive horror, not to recoil from it; to respond to it and bear witness.

The second lesson I learnt was how quickly compassion can die. When Belsen was liberated by the British army, the soldiers felt a great need, a compulsion, to save those who could be saved; but this took time and survivors became more demanding. They didn't want to be treated as pitiful victims. They wanted to leave the camp, but Europe was in chaos, and many could not go back home. Many were killed if they tried. They had nowhere to go and some stayed at Belsen until 1950.

They wanted a solution, and eventually those in control became less tolerant of their needs. I watched their compassion wither. From that I learned how important it is to hold on to compassion, to open yourself to a person's suffering, to bear witness to their stories and never forget what you've heard.

Helen Bamber runs the Helen Bamber Foundation, which works with survivors of human-rights violations: helenbamber.org

firstperson@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?