Helen Bamber, who at 19 traveled alone to post-World War II Germany to care for former inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and became one of the world’s most relentless advocates for the victims of war, genocide and torture, died Thursday in London. She was 89.
Her death, after a series of strokes last year, was announced by the Helen Bamber Foundation.
Started in 2005, the British organization expands on the rehabilitative work Bamber began 20 years earlier with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, a London-based group that provides counseling and documents torture cases to support asylum claims.
The organizations have been credited with helping thousands of victims — of state-sponsored terror, human trafficking and gang violence — adjust to life after physical and psychological trauma. A psychotherapist of “fierce gentility,” in her biographer’s words, Bamber treated clients from Bosnia, Chile, Congo, Iran, Rwanda and Sri Lanka — as well as British World War II veterans whose post-traumatic stress was little understood by the medical establishment for decades.
Bamber, whose parents were Jewish, grew up in London in a home where the Nazi threat was drummed into her mercilessly; at bedtime, her father read her passages of Hitler’s anti-Semitic tract “Mein Kampf.”
After the war, she joined the Jewish Relief Unit, a group of health and other professionals who went to Germany to help Holocaust survivors.
Dispatched to Bergen-Belsen, she helped distribute food and blankets to 12,000 former camp internees who had been transferred to old army barracks. They were emaciated and dying of typhus.
“People wanted to tell their story and I was able to receive it,” she once told The Observer, a British publication. “They would hold me and dig their fingers in and rasp this story out. … They would rock back and forth, and I would say to them, ‘I will tell your story. Your story will not die.’ It took me a long time to realize that that was all I could do.”
Most horrifying to Bamber was the shift in sentiment toward the camp survivors by those there to help and protect them. They were initially viewed as examples of human resilience amid unspeakable atrocities but, as the years passed, many remained displaced persons without hope of resettlement.
The authorities came to view the displaced people with contempt. “And that I found very frightening as a young person, watching those attitudes change,” Bamber said, according to The Daily Telegraph.
The 18 months she spent in Germany would define the rest of her life. She concluded that the world was made of two kinds of people: the bystanders and the witnesses. “I just couldn’t remain a bystander,” she said.
As an Amnesty International volunteer in the 1970s, Bamber had been involved in the human rights group’s high-profile “campaign against torture.” But Amnesty was mainly focused on documenting abuses, rather than treating victims. Bamber’s medical foundation, which was renamed Freedom From Torture in 2011, was among several groups that began to fill the void.
Malcolm Smart, a longtime official with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who succeeded Bamber at the helm of the medical foundation in 2002, called her “definitely one of the drivers of the greater appreciation of torture as a crime and the need to address it.”
“She talked to people who had been through those traumatic situations, documented it and brought it to the attention of policymakers, who were often not aware of the details,” Smart said. He added that Bamber was adept at fundraising in the film and theater community.
“I marveled that anyone could find the strength to engage with so many desperate stories without being engulfed by them,” actor Colin Firth told a British interviewer. Bamber advised Firth on his starring role in “The Railway Man,” a 2013 movie based on the life of British soldier Eric Lomax, who endured torture and forced labor by the Japanese during World War II.
Lomax, who died in 2012, became a client of the medical foundation in the late 1980s and once called Bamber a pivotal figure in his rehabilitation late in life.
“My first meeting with her was like walking through a door into an unexplored world, of caring and special understanding,” he said. “She learned in Belsen the importance of allowing people to tell what had been done to them, the power of listening to their testimony and of giving people the recognition that their experience deserves.”
Survivors include two sons and a granddaughter.