I vowed never to be a bystander

By Ben Gelblum

Remembering the work of pioneering refugee human rights advocate Helen Bamber

She helped the orphans of the Holocaust rebuild their lives. Then later, the tortured, broken survivors of Pinochet, the Argentinian junta, African and Middle Eastern conflicts, and a modern British approach to refugees that “disbelieves, destitute and detains” them.

Emma Thompson led tributes to her close friend and advocate for victims of torture, the late Helen Bamber at a packed St-Martin-In-The-Fields in Westminster yesterday.

Thompson, fellow actors Colin Firth and Juliet Stephenson, as well as those Helen Bamber had helped over the years with her pioneering mix of therapy and practical advice, bore witness to the tens of thousands of lives that Bamber had helped rebuild, in a moving memorial service to the human rights champion who passed away in August.

For almost seventy years, Helen dedicated her life to those who suffered torture, trafficking, slavery, war, the extremes of human cruelty.

Holocaust survivors

Growing up in a British Jewish family, her humanitarian career began with the Jewish Relief Unit, aged 20, working with survivors of the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.

Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, one of the 732 children who came to the UK and into Helen Bamber’s care after the Second World War ended gave a moving account of the young Helen Bamber’s infinite capacity to listen, bear witness and show love to survivors of unimaginable horrors.

“We had reached the limit of our endurance. We were liberated in a state of exhaustion and emaciation,” recalled Helfgott. “The vast majority of us survivors had lost our parents and had nobody left. We were in great need of care. It was to Helen that we turned.”

“Entering Bergen Belsen concentration camp with the allied forces that liberated it had a profound impact on Helen Bamber,” said Emma Thompson, now President of the Helen Bamber Foundation. “For Helen it seemed to galvanise something in her. She dedicated her life to the weakest, most vulnerable in society.”

Bearing witness to the young survivors of the holocaust who had been bombed, shot at, brutalised, starved, their families taken to their deaths, Helen Bamber later recalled: ‘I vowed never to be a bystander.”

Helen Bamber Foundation

Since 1945, Helen Bamber helped tens of thousands of people to confront the horror and brutality of their experiences, helping set up Amnesty International’s medical wing, helping victims of Chilean and Argentinian torture and disappearance squads tell their stories and rebuild their lives.

Realising the enormity of the task of helping refugees who fled torture and sought sanctuary in the UK, Bamber then opened the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture in 1985 at the age of 60, cajoling health care professionals, lawyers and other professionals into helping. In a political climate that does not encourage refugees, Bamber always had to fund raise herself. And the great and the good often helped, from actors like Emma Thompson to pop acts like Pink Floyd.

Bamber worked 60 hour weeks into her late eighties at the helm of the Helen Bamber Foundation, with which she pioneered widening the definition of torture to one defined by the survivor, including trafficking and all manner of extreme cruelty not necessarily conducted by a state.

Colin Firth also addressed last night’s memorial, recalling how Helen Bamber vowed “never to be a bystander” early in her life and pioneered a charitable approach to victims of torture, encompassing medicine, therapy, practical help, legal advocacy in a hostile political climate, to help people regain the dignity others had tried to take away.

Named European Woman of Achievement in 1993, and awarded an OBE in 1997, Helen Bamber worked with many of those gathered to honour her at St-Martin-In-The-Field’s, ceaselessly until she retired due to ill health aged 88, last year.

TJ Birdi, who has taken over the reigns at the Helen Bamber Foundation praised Bamber’s work in rebuilding “an ember of life after atrocity.”

An ember of life

During torture or extreme violence – a person reaches a realisation that there is nothing that can physically or psychologically be done to prevent what is happening. That moment of realisation is unimaginably destructive – because it is then that you cease to feel human,” TJ Birdi told the packed Westminster church.

“Helen’s attentiveness to the individual, gave her the ability to navigate the complexity of such trauma and our responses to it. Reading every sign – spoken and unspoken, it was her perception, and the ability to listen without recoil – that led to trust – and the deepest outpourings of horror and defilement.

“I saw her once work with a 16 year old girl who had seen her family being mutilated and killed and had become entirely mute. Helen talked to her through many sessions, even though she did not answer and only stared as Helen brought in different members of the team to help. Helen told her that one day she could learn how to read. The next time the girl came, Helen gave her a children’s book.”

Birdi who worked closely with Bamber in her last years added: “Late at night, in the office, she told me stories that linked what we saw today with what she had seen before. These are the words she often said:

“We have to ask the question. Are the bureaucratic responses to asylum seekers today so very different from those affecting the ‘displaced persons’ of the past? Is the language used by the media and politicians today, so very different, to that used to reject people fleeing pogroms, of the early 20th Century, or the Nazis a few decades later? Is the fate of asylum seekers returned to their country, with their accounts of suffering disbelieved, so very different to the fate of those in WWII, whose ships were sunk or were forced back across frontiers?

“Tell me – what is the price of compassion?’

These questions burn just as violently today.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, who often worked closely with Bamber on the most appalling cases of human rights violations echoed the need “to combat the notion of the ‘other’ – that somehow there are people who are different from us.”

The barrister and broadcaster called on everyone gathered to “shoulder Helen Bamber’s great legacy,” adding:  “we have to make sure the words uttered after the Holocaust, – ‘never again’ have true meaning.

The Helen Bamber Foundation relies on fund-raising and donations, to find out more: http://www.helenbamber.org

“Our society will be judged by how we respond to those to whom we owe nothing.” – Helen Bamber

Photocredit David Parry




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