Obituary: Helen Bamber, OBE

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Born: 1 May, 1925, in London. Died: 21 August, 2014, in London

Every so often a truly great person leaves us. Not “great” in the conventional sense of famous or powerful, but great by way of having lived a life imbued with love, kindness, good cheer and selfless motives.

Such a person was Helen Bamber, founder and director of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. In a 70-year career as a psychotherapist she bore witness to myriad horror stories, listening to clients from throughout the world for as long as they wished or could bear to talk.

“She knows the evil of mankind, and she won’t put up with it,” the late Dr John Rundle, a Glasgow-trained neurologist who worked with Bamber’s Foundation for nearly 30 years, once said of his colleague: “It’s a crusade if you like. But it’s not done as a zealot, it’s done as a human being.”

On entering the foundation’s premises in north London, you walk past rooms full of different people, of all nationalities, cultures and skin colours. Their faces are marked with the lines and scars of struggle: you can only wonder about their history. Where are they from? How did they offend the mighty in their homelands? Were they beaten, starved, psychologically tortured, locked in solitary? Can they ever be happy again?

Helen Bamber, who has died aged 89 following a year-long illness, believed that totalitarianism is evil and must be resisted and that the state exists to enhance the life of the individual, not the other way around. Through her work at the foundation, she and her professional colleagues helped tens of thousands of men, women and children from throughout the world to confront the horror and brutality of their experiences.

She described torture as an attempt to kill a person, physically and spiritually, without their dying. I interviewed her after she treated two Zimbabwean journalists, Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto, who had been terribly tortured over 12 consecutive days at a military detention camp near Harare. Their “crime”? They had described in their newspaper an attempted coup by army officers against president Robert Mugabe.

“We’ve conquered so much [in the modern world] in terms of medicine and science, but we’ve learned relatively little about ourselves – and we are very cruel beasts,” Bamber told me.

“Torture is about total helplessness and total power, the deliberate destruction of people. I seek more understanding of why we carry violence within us so that, given certain opportunities, it spurts out into cruelty.”

However, she said she had discovered that people can overcome the most appalling tragedies: “They have their strengths, coping mechanisms and humour. But they need recognition and compassion from others if they are to survive and overcome their pasts.

“I’m not without my desolation and despair from time to time because it’s pretty rotten out there. But mostly I find listening so rewarding and humbling. In the end, I’m always inspired by the beauty of the human spirit.”

It was in 1945 that Helen Bamber made the decision that was to shape her life. She was just 19, when she told her parents that she was going with the Jewish Relief Unit to the Belsen concentration camp, in northern Germany, where more than 50,000 people – including Anne Frank and her sister Margot – died and where, when it was liberated, British soldiers found 13,000 corpses lying unburied.

She felt compelled to see and smell Belsen, to understand the dreadful aftermath of Nazism. She described the aroma of death pervading the camp as “like the sweet smell of geraniums if you crush them”.

It was there that Bamber decided that the world was divided into two camps: bystanders and witnesses. Bystanders saw what they wanted, turned away when it suited them, denied the evidence if necessary. Witnesses had a duty to observe and report truthfully.

Bamber was a tiny, immaculately dressed woman, with artfully decorated finger nails who said: “It sounds very pompous, but the evil that can be done to human beings is something that has dominated my life. I was always aware that if the Nazis had succeeded in invading Britain, we [Jewish citizens] would have been the victims.”

Bamber, on return from Belsen, worked with the Jewish Refugee Committee before spending three decades campaigning for Amnesty International, where she started a group to help torture victims. Amnesty decided that treating torture victims as well as campaigning against the regimes that abused them was too broad a remit, which spurred her in 1985 to launch the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture.

By the time of her death, the foundation had more than 100 paid staff and hundreds of volunteers treating some 3,000 people a year. Victims were of every description – survivors of genocide, victims of trafficking and female genital mutilation and Palestinians driven mad by Israeli occupation strategies.

Luis Muñoz, tortured by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s henchmen, remembers his psychotherapy sessions with Bamber and her staff with gratitude. His wife, a journalist who had written a book about Chile’s rulers, disappeared and he never saw her again. He was 26, she was 23. Muñoz was then thrown into a torture centre, where electrodes were attached to his mouth, ears, eyes, penis, anus and toes. A soldering iron was applied to his testicles. “They didn’t want me dead yet, so they stopped the shock treatment and put me in a wooden box and deprived me of sleep, food and hygiene. There was a little hole for ventilation. They put me in there to drive me mad.”

Muñoz was subsequently transferred to a concentration camp, where he was subjected to mock executions before being allowed – after four years – to move to Britain. Suffering physical pain, depression, panic attacks and guilt, he went to Bamber for therapy: “She knew more about my physical and mental health at the time than I did.

“She was very persistent: when I kept stuff from her she didn’t give up. I thought that if I talked about what happened to me I’d hurt the listener, that it would be too much for her to bear. But Helen could contain me. She enabled me to cry.”

Muñoz became what Bamber defined as a creative survivor. In a multi-layered process, creative survival is in part about allowing people to grieve, to achieve emotional release and begin to put the past behind them.

Soon after returning from Belsen, Helen married Rudi Bamberger, a Jewish refugee from Germany who changed his name to the more British Bamber. Rudi’s father had been beaten to death in Nuremburg on Kristallnacht in November 1938. They divorced after 23 years: Rudi, said Helen, was drowning in his own darkness and ultimately she was unable to cope. They remained friends until he died, but “I was sad for a long time; I think I’m still sad,” she once said.

Therapists at Bamber’s foundation see their own therapists to make sure they are still up to the job. Helen’s therapist used to give her a hard time for over-working. Did she think there was a danger of playing God? “You have to be clear that you have tremendous limitations in this work: you know you’re going to lose some along the line.”

Bamber said Judaism had been important to her, but it didn’t make her a believer. “I don’t have that sense of devotion,” she said. “But I must believe in something. I suspect that it’s believing that even though I see a great deal of evil, there’s something very good to be retrieved from people.”

Helen Bamber is survived by two sons.

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