As the Holocaust is being remembered in the UK and at the UN, those who have witnessed the ongoing revival of anti-Semitism in Hungary are experiencing a chilling sense of déjà vu.
Jane Haining was matron of a girls’ boarding school in Budapest, Hungary, before being arrested by the Nazis. And just six months before the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945, the life of this courageous Scottish Christian came to a grisly end in its gas chambers. Her crime was that she loved the Jews!
Now, 70 years on from her death, aged 47, on July 17, 1944, Jane’s story has come into sharp focus with the publication of a new book. It has even been translated into Hungarian, and a key Budapest thoroughfare has been named after her, but in truth anti-Semitism there is once more on the rise, inflamed by the policies of the right-wing Jobbik Party who commanded over 20 per cent of the national vote at last year’s elections.
They had toned down their anti-Semitic narrative for the purpose, but European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor described their performance as ‘neo-Nazi’ and a ‘dark day’ for Hungary, where even a newly-erected statue commemorating Holocaust victims is being seen as an attempt to whitewash history, depicting an eagle swooping down on a little angel holding a sphere, making the Hungarians out to be victims when in fact they shared the guilt of being perpetrators with the Germans.
From Matron to Martyr – one woman’s ultimate sacrifice for the Jews is authored by New Zealander Lynley Smith, a distant relative who travelled the world to research details for her magnificent portrayal of this brave woman from Dunscore, near Dumfries – the only Scot to be honoured with a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
Jane had been living and working in the Glasgow area before taking on the role of matron at the boarding establishment of a school run by the Scottish Mission to Jews.
So dedicated was she to what she believed was her life’s calling that she refused to leave her post when given several opportunities to escape, and even being ordered home by her superiors who feared for her safety.
But more important to her was the safety of the Jewish girls under her care, already suffering under relentless discrimination and persecution even before the Nazis marched into their country. Many of their parents were forcibly split up by the authorities as they sent the breadwinning Jewish men away, ostensibly to work camps, leaving families destitute and distressed.
The children often took refuge in the arms of Jane, who loved to comfort them with hugs and prayers of assurance. When she was forced by new laws to sew yellow stars onto the uniforms of her girls, she sobbed uncontrollably. And when some of the poorer pupils had no footwear, she effectively cut off any remaining ties with her homeland by using the soft leather of her suitcase to make soles for the girls’ shoes.
Jane was eventually arrested by the Gestapo on a series of charges which basically amounted to the fact that she showed too much concern for the Jews.
Leaving her girls distraught, she was moved around various local prisons before being corralled into a cattle truck, crushed in with some 90 other women in conditions worse than animals would suffer with access neither to water nor toilets for the long and tortuous journey to Auschwitz in south-west Poland.
She died soon afterwards, allegedly of natural causes. But since she had a strong constitution and had held up well even when sharing her food with her fellow inmates in an earlier prison, she is more likely to have been either shot or gassed, like so many of the four million others estimated to have perished at this most infamous of all death camps.
A postcard written two days before her death indicated no ill-health, but hinted at her impending ‘promotion’ to meet with her Lord in heaven.
Intriguingly, in a chapter titled A View from the Summit early on in the book, the author imagines the scene of Jane’s arrival in paradise, which serves the useful purpose of taking the sting out of the horrors that ensue in the narrative. Indeed the Bible speaks of how the promise of resurrection removes the sting of death!
But little appears to have changed since those dark days in 1944. The author has told me how, on a recent visit to Budapest to launch the Hungarian translation of her book, she witnessed a group of skinheads racing through the city, one of them giving a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute as he dashed past a policeman.
Jobbik lawmaker Marton Gyongyosi sparked protests in 2012 by calling in parliament for a list of people “of Jewish origin (who) present a national security risk to Hungary.”
Other Jobbik members have referred to the “so-called Holocaust” and have strongly supported the rehabilitation of figures sympathetic to the Nazis like Hungary’s war-time leader and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy.
Another deputy, Sandor Porzse, has said Hungarians “are the victims of a Jewish conspiracy to colonise our land and rob our resources.”
And foreign farmers are witnessing increasing incidents of boycott and intimidation from the far right. Arthur Reynolds, an Englishman who has farmed there since 1991, says: “Hungary has not improved much since 1944.”
Meanwhile Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev will be the keynote speaker at the UN General Assembly in New York tomorrow to mark the tenth anniversary of the UN-sanctioned International Day of Commemoration for Holocaust victims. And Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin will be among those present.
As I was meditating recently on Psalm 126 – that “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” – I thought of Jane Haining, who wept uncontrollably as she was forced to sew yellow stars on the uniforms of the Jewish girls in her care. A harvest of life from the dead would surely follow, of which the re-birth of Israel was just the beginning.
As the Rabbi who wrote a foreword to Lynley’s book said, “Jews need to know that true followers of Jesus are our friends.”