A popular piece of hyperbole one hears with depressing frequency in "the media" is that a certain person, should one only meet them once and then only briefly, might nevertheless with their few short words and sheer personal presence "change" one's life fundamentally from that point onwards. Yet there are such people, though in much rarer a supply than we might be led to believe, and it was my great privilege to meet one of them in the form of Helen Bamber.
In 1985, while then an (ashamedly rather less active than idealist) activist/idealist in one of those myriad voluntary organisations committed to a better world in which tyranny and the wanton destruction of this fragile planet vied for our attention as the greatest of man-made evils, I made a trip to London as a guest of a similar band of equally callow, inexcusably innocent to the point of ignorant, but yet well-intentioned people of like mind. The occasion was an attempt to better coordinate and amalgamate our diffuse organisations into something a little more cohesive and effective (boy, had we a lot to learn). In the middle of the discursive melee that ensued, in which I grew familiar with more overpopulated bedsits and tiny function-rooms upstairs in pubs than I care to remember and in which we all managed to advance the cause of a more equitable and intelligent planet by whatever term best suits an infinitesimal fraction of one iota, one of these excursions led me to a pub near Hampstead Heath. That evening it would be host to what I foolishly considered was the launch of yet another group similar to our own, then to be called "The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture" though which is now known by its more concise and much more media-friendly hook "Freedom From Torture".
What struck me immediately on arriving was of course the presence, besides the obligatory bevy of 20-somethings, yet to be 20-somethings, and those obviously regretting they were no longer 20-somethings (I had recently progressed through these ranks myself), of a very visible hard core of 60-somethings who not only were the most vocal and vivaciously social on the night but who were also, as it soon transpired, actually the founding members of this new organisation. Chief amongst them (for she was indeed the founder whose initiative had brought us all there anyway) was Helen.
I had never heard of Helen Bamber before that point. To my shame this did not stop me, when the convention of "circulation" in upstairs pub function-rooms brought me into her unfortunate earshot, asking what an obviously sweet middle-aged middle-class English woman could possibly really know about torture (except that it was a bad thing). She agreed with me amicably that what she knew could never be much. She herself had not been tortured. Like everyone else she founded her abhorrence on observation of the effects on those who she had met who had been tortured. We parted, and I don't even remember if I snorted visibly or just internally at the notion that she could ever have met many at all.
In May 1945, with the war in Europe not yet completely concluded, at the age of 20 Helen had arrived in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as an assistant to a Harley Street doctor specialising in psychotherapy to aid in the rehabilitation of the survivors, so recently "liberated" but still incarcerated, this time by allied forces obliged to "contain" these disease-ridden and now rootless hundreds of thousands of people "for their own good", many doomed to die before her eyes, while the sheer enormity of the human catastrophe that had been the Nazi's "final solution" was still being digested by the powers that be. She was to remain for two years, subsequently returning to England to become an acclaimed and formidably accomplished psychotherapist in her own right, and a staunch supporter especially of children in the UK whose ill health had subsumed them into hospital care, as well as an equally staunch founder member of Amnesty international. It had been as the organiser of the latter's "medical section" that she now found herself, in 1985, heading up an organisation dedicated to the long-term rehabilitation of those who, often through Amnesty's admirable efforts, had been rescued from torture.
Of course all this I learnt very shortly after it was too late to rescue myself from where my gauche assumptions had led me so readily in the pub. So what remained indelibly stamped on my mind was the lady's good manners and civility in the face of such stupidity (which she probably knew and understood much better than I ever will anyway). I rarely use the word "lady", preferring to reserve it for those who earn my respect rather than expect it, and I notice in her obituaries that the British government has never thought fit to apply the term officially to her either anyway. She did get some recognition - but in a system that knighted Jimmy Savile her OBE, shared with such luminaries as Ryan Giggs and Gary Barlow, is one I therefore hope was in recognition of her disarming humour and warmth, if not quite for her superhuman effort in making this world at least a more bearable place to endure for the rest of us, and indeed for the countless thousands who are only around to bear it at all thanks to that effort she put in while she was with us.
Magna cum laude, goodnight Helen Bamber OBE.