Cover image for The good listener : Helen Bamber, a life against cruelty
The good listener : Helen Bamber, a life against cruelty
Belton, Neil.
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Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, 1998.
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x, 374 pages ; 25 cm
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HQ1595.B35 B45 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A magisterial achievement: part biography, part history, part moral meditation on the resurrection of torture as an instrument of political power in the twentieth century,The Good Listenertells 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 a repository of our collective memory of debasement. Her father, a Polish Jew, had been so obsessed by the Fascist threat that he would read to Helen from Goebbels' speeches, teaching her how corrupting and manipulative language can be. 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 Listeneris rendered even more powerful by the stories of the people she has helped, stories that become unforgettable records of meaningless human suffering. Written with preternatural sensitivity,The Good Listeneris a remarkable and important book.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The best and worst in human behavior unite these books. Belton's subject may be the least familiar. Helen Bamber heads the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Her organization's remarkable work is a fitting culmination for the career of Bamber--the child of a father who saw, more than many British Jews, fascism's threat; the young woman who joined the Jewish Relief Unit at Belsen after the war, first realizing there the importance of listening to those who have lived through hell, then worked with refugees and teenaged concentration camp survivors in England; the wife and mother who worked with physicians and medical researchers while serving as one of the most active volunteers at Britain's Amnesty International chapter; and, finally, the founder of the organization that offers medical and psychological support (including listening) while agitating for an end to torture around the world. Torture is one of our global society's dirty little secrets; the narratives of individuals Bamber has worked with, which Belton, a Granta editor, included here will convince readers of the need to take action against this scourge. British columnist Moorehead's fine track record (e.g., Bertrand Russell, 1993), plus the fact that she was the first researcher granted broad access to the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from the 1870s through the end of World War II, suggest Dunant's Dream will circulate. (Expect more interest if the planned BBC documentary series appears on PBS or A&E!) The 1859 Battle of Solferino led Swiss entrepreneur Dunant to dream of an international humanitarian group to set limits on warfare and care for combat casualties. Moorehead's narrative follows that dream, sketching the achievements and failures of this private corporation, still run by a small group of well-off Swiss citizens. Moorehead opens with ICRC's most visible lapse--its 1942 decision not to reveal what Nazi Germany was doing--but she devotes much attention to the organization's development and to the special challenges it has faced in recent decades (Biafra, Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya). A fascinating, compelling narrative. With Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation high on best-seller lists, We Band of Angels should appeal. Norman, a New York University nursing professor, ran into references to women in "combat" in World War II when she was researching a previous book on military nurses in Vietnam (Women at War, 1990). She confirmed the story and then tracked down as many of the survivors as she could. There were 99 army and navy nurses in the Philippines when it was attacked on 8 December 1941. As the troops retreated from Bataan to Corregidor, some two dozen nurses escaped, but 77 women were captured, held for three years in prison camps, and then repatriated to the U.S. Norman interviewed 20 of them (nearly 30 had died by 1990; nearly 60 by 1998) and vividly recreates their experiences. The "Battling Belles of Bataan" were portrayed (in highly fictionalized form, Norman points out) in the 1943 film So Proudly We Hail. Norman tells the story straight, following her interviewees from farm, town, or city to war and back. Involving oral history. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From Chapter One:  THE LIBERTIES OF BERWICK 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 heath would 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. Excerpted from The Good Listener: Helen Bamber, a Life Against Cruelty by Neil Belton All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.