When we hear about war, we often hear of death, anguish and suffering. Why would someone want to expose themselves to stories of being tortured or witnessing the murders of family members? Few would choose to travel to a place steeped in such sickness and destitution.
That is what makes Helen Bamber’s work so extraordinary. Helen has an international reputation in the field of humanitarianism for her tireless work in helping victims of violence rebuild their lives and find hopeful futures. She took the time to listen and comfort people in Bergen-Belsen as they desperately spilt out their stories “like vomit,” as she put it, and she has continued to support survivors and fight for human rights ever since. People who know Helen say she has a gift, and she describes being proud of her team’s “professional compassion.” She vowed never to be a bystander to human suffering, and she often says “Our society will be judged by how we respond to those to whom we owe nothing.”
Helen Balmuth was born on 1 May 1925 to Louis Balmuth and Marie Bader. Helen was their only child, but she remembers her father letting people into their house when she was young; mostly refugees.
Their stories, and her father’s teachings, opened her eyes to the real world. She felt the need to do something for people who were suffering and those who lost loved ones because of the Nazi ideology:
"My father had understood much earlier than many of his contemporaries what was going to happen in Europe. He read Mein Kampf, he listened to the German broadcasts. ~ He understood politics and what was going to happen very well." (SOURCE: ABC.net.au)
In 1947, she married Rudy Bambergen, a refugee from Nuremberg who had witnessed his father’s murder by Nazi forces and lost his mother to conditions in the camp. He changed his German last name to the more British-sounding “Bamber,” and Helen and Rudy were married for 27 years. They had two children, Jonathan and David.
World War II had just ended when she was 20 years old, and Helen wanted to help the victims and survivors of the Nazi movement.
When she got to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she was overwhelmed by what she saw. And then, in the midst of the chaos, she found her purpose:
"I came upon this woman who was just sitting on the ground and she looked to me almost like a piece of material in the distance. When I first saw her she was sort of sitting there and she hardly looked human. And she sort of put her arms up when I came towards her and I sat down on the ground, and we rocked, we held each other and we rocked. And this happened to me several times but this, the first time it happened, was the biggest lesson of my life.
I said to her, "Look, I can't bring back your dead and I can't change the history. I can't change what's happened to you, but I am going to be your witness and I am going to tell your story”. And this calmed her immensely. This calmed her because I think she knew that she was going to die. She didn't want to die and it not be told, that nobody would know. It was terribly important and it's important to survivors today that somebody hears the story, somebody believes." (SOURCE: ABC.net.au)
Since then, Helen has not backed down from her promise.
In 1947, she returned to England after helping with the evacuation of sick, young people from Germany to Switzerland. She was then appointed to the “Committee for the Care of Young Children from Concentration Camps.” A total of 722 children from Auschwitz, perhaps the most prominent Nazi concentration camp, were put under her care. She was trained by the Anna Freud Clinic in dealing with disturbed young adults and children and also worked with the London Hospital Child Guidance Clinic. She studied part-time at the London School of Economics, where she studied social science.
“A Textbook of Medicine” and “Human Guinea Pigs” came out of her collaboration with Dr. Maurice Pappworth, a consultant at St. George's from whom she learned a great deal about medical ethics. Like her, Dr. Pappworth also wanted to uncover the effects of “total power” and “total helplessness.” On the subject of torture, she worked with an expert, Dr. Hardenberg, and they presented their findings to the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. Together, they studied evidence from Nuremberg trials about experiments performed on children by Nazi doctors.
Helen worked as an almoner at St. George in the East End Hospital and at the Middlesex Hospital. She then joined Amnesty International and chaired its first Medical Group in the British Section.
The documentations and submissions of torture compiled by the Medical Group inspired the creation of the British Medical Association's “Working Party on Torture.” From their findings, the first “Torture Report” was assembled and the publication “Medicine Betrayed” was released.
She set up the “Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture” in 1985 at the age of 65, while also serving as Secretary General for the International Society for Health and Human Rights. The organization was a huge success, and treated 30,000 patients from over 90 different countries. She retired as director in 2002.
In 2005, her 80th year, she set up the “Helen Bamber Foundation” to support survivors of human rights abuses outside of the narrow UN-definition of “torture,” including those who had been trafficked.
The foundation "grew from the recognition that people who have suffered prolonged inter-personal violence – whether from human trafficking, war, community, domestic or gender-based violence – present with similar physical and psychological symptoms to torture survivors and experience the same complex and enduring responses to trauma. The specialised and integrated model of care and support that Helen and her colleagues had developed over decades for people who had suffered state torture, could therefore be extended to include a wider range of survivors" (SOURCE: HelenBamber.org).
At almost 90 years old, she remains the Clinical Director at the foundation. As she vowed never to be a bystander, we have a feeling she’ll never stop helping those with important stories to tell. What a life well-lived!
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Care of Young Children from Concentration Camps
- Amnesty International
- Jewish Refugee Committee
- Anna Freud Clinic
- National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital
- Medical Group
- Working Party on Torture
- Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture
- Helen Bamber Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 1947: Worked with the Jewish Refugee Committee and was appointed to the “Committee for the Care of Young Children from Concentration Camps”
- 1958: Appointed almoner at St. George in the East End Hospital
- 1961: Joined the new Amnesty International (founded in May)
- 1974: Helped establish the Medical Group within the organization and was appointed as a Secretary
- 1985: Founded the “Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture” and appointed “Secretary General” for the International Society for Health and Human Rights
- 1993: Named “European Woman of Achievement”
- 1997: Awarded an “OBE”
- 1998: Received Lifetime's “Achievement in Human Rights”
- 2005: Founded the “Helen Bamber Foundation”
- 2006: Awarded the “Beacon Special Prize”
- 2008: Appointed to the Women Leader’s Council of the “United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking”
- 2008: Received the “Jewish Care’s Woman of Distinction Award”
- 2009: Received the “Eileen Skellern Lifetime Achievement Award”
- 2009: Cannes Film Festival honoured the Helen Bamber Foundation’s advertising campaign
- 2009: Honored at the Dag Hammarskjöld Scholarship Fund for Journalists with the “Inspiration Award”
- 2009: Received “The Times/Sternberg Active Life Award”
- Joined a group of protesters opposing Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists as a teenager
- Appointed to one of the first rehabilitation teams to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with the Jewish Relief Unit at 20 years old
- Became a founding member of the influential “National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital”
- Led ground-breaking research into government torture in Chile, Northern Ireland, the Soviet Union and South Africa
- Oxford University
- University of Dundee
- Glasgow University
- University of Ulster
- Kingston University
- The Open University
- Oxford Brookes University
- University of Essex
Wikipedia (Helen Bamber)
HelenBamber.org (About us)
The Guardian (Small wonder)
BBC (Bearing witness to the Holocaust)
The Guardian (Helen Bamber)
The Guardian (The amazing Mrs Bamber)
BBC (Helen Bamber shares her memories of the liberation of Belsen.)
The Huffington Post (Emma Thompson, Helen Bamber: Finding the Silent Scream)
The Times (Helen Bamber receives the first Times/Sternberg Active Life award)
ABC.net.au (Helen Bamber)
Time to Look Beyond the Mirror (Positive Image Heroes & Heroines #20: Helen Bamber)
Helen Bamber Biography 2013 from the Helen Bamber Foundation courtesy of Ms. Emily Collins, Helen Bamber Foundation’s Fundraising & Communications Officer