Arts & Books Books

The Scottish missionary who was transported to Auschwitz

The school in Budapest where Jane Haining worked before her arrest in 1944

Jane Haining embodied the best qualities of Presbyterian Scotland, says Allan Massie

Jane Haining: A Life of Love and Courage
By Mary Miller
Birlinn, 240pp, £14.99/$20

We know, hear, think and speak a lot about the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, about Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the gulags. It is right that we continue to do so. But we pay less attention than we should to those whose lives served as a rebuke to the zealots and perpetrators of these monstrous cruelties. There were all sorts of men and women in the Moral Resistance. Jane Haining was one of them.

She was a farmer’s daughter from Galloway in the south-west of Scotland. Reared in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and educated at Dumfries Academy – where she learned both French and German, as she might not now – and a commercial college in Glasgow, she worked first as a pay clerk and then as a secretary, while also teaching in Sunday school.

This wasn’t enough. She found she wanted to do mission work. After training her, the Church of Scotland sent Jane to its Jewish Mission School in Budapest. It had been founded in 1841. It was now 1932 and there was less emphasis on conversion, almost none indeed, more on providing a good education based on Christian values. The pupils were all girls, Christians as well as Jews. Jane now learned Magyar to go with her German, and it is clear that she was devoted to the girls in her charge.

There was anti-Semitism in Hungary, though not yet on the scale experienced in Germany. Nevertheless, Jewish parents already recognised that the school provided “a safe haven from the fierce anti-Semitism of the world outside” and twice as many parents applied for places as could be accommodated.

Jane was home on leave in the summer of 1939 but, when war was declared, she immediately returned to Budapest. Hungary was still neutral but there were friends who had urged her to stay at home. Her view was simple: “If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?” She didn’t see herself as a heroine, only as a Christian doing her duty.

Anti-Jewish laws were firmly, sometimes brutally, enforced, especially after Hungary entered the war on the German side. By the winter of 1943-4, the Regent, Admiral Horthy, recognised that the war had turned against Germany and tentatively moved to disengage Hungary. This action prompted a German invasion, and inevitably more deportations of Jews – something Horthy had tried to limit. Jane was denounced and arrested in April 1944, charged, among other crimes, with having “worked among Jews”.

Two months later she “was dispatched in a cattle truck to Auschwitz, and the world as she had known it was obliterated for her”. The account of what she probably experienced there is horrible, and horribly familiar to most of us now. In July, she was taken to Birkenau and murdered in the gas chamber, one of so many millions. She was 47.

Hers is a terrible story. Of course it is. But it is also an inspiring one, as are the stories of all those who looked evil in the face, said “no” to it, and continued steadfast in their faith and their commitment to whatsoever things were good. One of her students who survived said: “Even now I live by the rules and instructions given by the Scottish Mission. I was shaped there in love, beauty and knowledge. Our lives were broken, but my faith prevails.”

One Auschwitz survivor, later living in Glasgow, said simply: “I think Jane Haining was braver than us because, as a Christian, she could have got away. We didn’t have a choice about being there. She did.” As another survivor put it, “she proved that goodness wins in the long run. This was one human being who cared more about saving my life than saving her own.” Yet another said: “You were either the persecutor or the persecuted. Terror reigned everywhere, and Jane Haining was a safe point of light and love that none of us will ever forget.”

Mary Miller tells Jane’s story very well. It has, of course, a special interest for Scots, partly because it reminds us of a Presbyterian Scotland that, for all the faults of the Kirk, had a decent dignity and sense of moral responsibility that have since completely withered.

But it has a much wider message or application. The world is still full of horror and atrocities, and it is still easy, as it has always been, to turn away from them. There were many like Haining, men and women of all religions or none, who had the courage to show and assert that the day came when you had to say “no”, stick to your principles and be true to your faith, even to an eccentric faith.

Reading this book, I found myself reminded of a story that Günter Grass told in his memoir Peeling the Onion, about a handsome blond German boy who looked the very image of the Nazi ideal youth. But he was a Jehovah’s Witness and refused to handle a gun. When they put one in his hands as he stood on parade, he let it fall to the ground, saying simply and repeatedly, “We don’t do that.”

They killed him of course, but his words resonate: we don’t do that.