The Good Listener: Helen Bamber, a Life Against Cruelty

The Good Listener: Helen Bamber, a Life Against Cruelty

by Neil Belton

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Part biography, part history, part moral meditation on the resurrection of torture as an instrument of political power in the twentieth century, The Good Listener tells the story of Helen Bamber, a good but complex woman now in her seventies, who has spent her life battling to bring the dark side of history into the light. In almost every situation in our century… See more details below


Part biography, part history, part moral meditation on the resurrection of torture as an instrument of political power in the twentieth century, The Good Listener tells the story of Helen Bamber, a good but complex woman now in her seventies, who has spent her life battling to bring the dark side of history into the light. In almost every situation in our century where mankind has demonstrated its capacity to intensify evil - during the Nazi Holocaust, in Algeria, Chile, Africa, the USSR, and Israel, as well as in postwar Britain and Germany - Bamber has served as a witness, an expert, or a reproach, as well as repository of our collective memory of debasement. She went to Bergen-Belsen after World War II had ended, and upon her return to London she dedicated herself to caring for the young survivors of the camp. So began Bamber's brave devotion to the grim and dangerous task of undoing the work of the torturer - culminating, after her participation as a central force in Amnesty International, in her establishment in England of the Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Because Bamber's uncanny openness to others has been one of her great skills, The Good Listener is rendered even more powerful by the stories of the people she has helped, stories that become unforgettable records of meaningless human suffering.

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Editorial Reviews

Sara Ivry
...[A] comprehensive, thoughtful biography of a woman who possesses a near compulsion to challenge the brutality that those in power sometimes inflict....Bamber's work...offers a critical reminder that we need not be resigned to human rights violations, rampant though they are. —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Belton capably and sympathetically renders the gripping drama of international human rights activist Helen Bamber's life and work, having been accorded full access to his subject and her associates. Raised in Britain by Jewish parents of Polish extraction, Bamber (b. 1925) was deeply affected by the newspaper accounts of Hitler's atrocities that her father read to her as a child. Her lifelong commitment to human rights began in 1945 when she traveled to Germany as a member of the Jewish Relief Unit and saw for herself what Holocaust survivors had been through. Back in Britain, she married a German Jewish refugee and gave birth to two sons before involving herself in activism, focusing on mothers' rights in hospitals, and midwifing the publication of a passionate expos of unscrupulous doctors who performed experimental medicine on children and helpless adults. After her divorce, Bamber became deeply involved in Amnesty International and worked for those who had been tortured in Algeria and Chile. Belton's meticulous research and eye for detail inform the many anecdotes highlighting his subject's fight against the use of torture. In 1985, Bamber left Amnesty International and founded the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, under whose auspices she testified in Israel on behalf of a Palestinian prisoner in 1993. Although Belton includes negative comments from one of Bamber's sons that imply neglect, and criticism from colleagues who call her a "complete dictator," Bamber's documented altruism and heroism eclipse any personal defects. (Apr.)
Library Journal - Library Journal
Sensitive, moving, and impossible to categorize, this disturbing book is the biography of an obscure but extraordinary British woman who has devoted most of her life to aiding victims of political torture throughout the world. Drawing on interviews with Helen Bamber herself, as well as with those who have been affected by her work, Belton (an editor at Granta Books in London) has done a masterly job of synthesizing biography, politics, history, psychology, and literature. A half-century of political atrocity becomes the backdrop for Bamber's story. Detailed here is her work with death camp survivors, efforts with displaced persons after the war, activities in Chile, Gaza, and Algeria, involvement with Amnesty International, and establishment of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Scholars interested in the history and development of the international campaign for human rights, especially the intersection of human rights and ethical medical practices, will certainly appreciate this book, but it is valuable reading for everyone.--Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ
Kirkus Reviews
The rather unorthodox biography of Helen Bamber, a British woman who has devoted her life to supporting the welfare of international victims of torture.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.46(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.28(d)

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Helen Bamber, when she was just over twenty years old, crossed into Germany in 1945 and saw the miles of rubble stretching off on either side, with thin children standing on the edge of the railway track. People threw bread to them from the train. In what was left of a town she would see 'men in long grey belted raincoats, their long, sullen, grey faces'. She said that this was what Germans were supposed to look like; but the children still looked like children. The gaunt men in their coats would notice the six-pointed star on the shoulder of her army uniform; their eyes always seemed drawn to it. She wore a metal badge on her left breast-pocket, two intersected yellow triangles set inside a blue and white hexagram with the letters JRU at the centre. Jewish Relief Unit. During the long waits in railway stations she rested her arms on the edge of the carriage window, her chest pressed to the glass, and she could sense them looking at her. She felt singled out, naked: not because she was a good-looking woman but because she was a young Jew travelling through Germany, wearing that badge.

She was driven up some days later in a noisy British Army lorry from the village of Eilshausen to what was by then called the Number One Camp, or Bergen-Belsen. The wire and gates were still there. Clinging to the grass and in the air was 'a smell of burning, of petrol fumes, burned wood and earth' and 'other smells', which were imaginary perhaps, but not impossible even then, two months after the Germans surrendered the camp. The great mounds--long barrows thrown up in the sandy soil of the heath--were still raw earth. Plants from the heathwould not start to take on the graves until the following spring. Around the empty field were the most beautiful silver birch woods she had ever seen.

The newspaper photograph of the burning of the last hut was still vivid in her mind. It was a low wooden structure forty yards long with a German flag nailed up at one end and at the other a large banner printed with Hitler's face. Gun-carriers, open half-track vehicles mounted with flame throwers, lined up and sent three ragged arcs of fire at the walls of the shed. The burning petrol consumed it very fast. It was to prevent the spread of disease, the army said; but there was an element of celebration, the liberators congratulating themselves on a job well done while turn-ing the evidence to ash.

In the late summer of 1945 there were still 20,000 survivors, the majority of them Jewish, living a mile up the road in the former Panzer training depot, austere buildings around a barracks square. The survivors war was not over yet. And it would not be long before memory began to play tricks about what had happened here; fifty years later, British newspaper could talk about the 'gas chambers' of Belsen. There were none. It was not like Auschwitz; here extreme carelessness and racist indifference were enough, as tens of thousands of human beings died of typhus and starvation, lying in their own wastes.

Helen Bamber has always remembered the lingering smell, and it is one of those very physical memories, infiltrating all the others, that returns to her even when she forgets the precise sequence of events from half a century ago.

With old age, it seems easier to make deep connections between memories , to cut through calendar time and bring events together because they are intensified in relation to each other. The essential stands out; chronology blurs, dates fade and merge; moments far apart in time are linked by a code which it is possible to feel can at last be understood, which may be the nearest we come to feeling part of history. In 1995, the anniversary of the war's various tangled endings, Bamber needed to find a way of dealing with her sense of time closing around her, with the discovery that her life had run so long that it had become a surface on which she could trace patterns.

She felt unhappy during the official commemorations of the end of the war and the liberation of the concentration camps, that myth of 'liberation'--as though that had all along been the goal of the war. And the rhetoric of it grated, the lauding of 'survival' and 'the tenacity of the human spirit' The tone of the expressions of official memory saddened her: 'There is always such pride in our generosity and bravery; the complacency of it is suffocating.'

Her own way back was to go to the far north of England, to Berwick-upon-Tweed, to be with a group she always refers to as 'the men'. She calls them that perhaps to distinguish them from the young Jewish survivors of the camps with whom she worked after her return from Germany and who are widely known as 'the boys'. She also saw them that year, men nearly her own age, dancing their vigorous dances, sing-ing, exulting in their jubilee. These 'boys' are a magnificent group, orphaned and enslaved by the Nazis and ingenious beyond belief in their refusal to go under. They have done well, married, and have good lives, and there was a great, understandable desire to celebrate them. But Bamber felt that they had a bleak time of it while they struggled to live in post-war England after so much loss, and it was painful to remember what it had cost them, their defensive toughness. 'They were courageous and extraordinary, but many of them had had to bury their feelings so deep that they were unable to reach them or even know, sometimes, that they had them.'

She could not dissociate their youth from their apparently triumphant old age: 'People who went through the Holocaust survived because they were very tough in very many ways, and because of sheer chance. Many people survived at great cost. It is difficult to pretend that they did not, and I think we could do very little for them in the 1940s. Remembering the frustration and failure of those years was like stripping a bandage from an unhealed wound. It was too close to home, in all the senses she knew of that complicated word. So she went north for several long weekends, the nearest thing she would have to a holiday that year from the Medical Foundation and its staff, its volunteers and the unending flow of new 'clients': their word for victims of torture, since all the others terms are so loaded.

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