Helen Bamber was a psychotherapist who devoted her life to working with severely traumatized patients, including Holocaust survivors and victims of torture.
Born to a Jewish family in London in 1925, Helen was raised in an atmosphere of fear as the Nazi party rose to power. Chronically sick with tubercular bronchitis, Helen nevertheless joined protests against the British Union of Fascists who were Nazi sympathizers in Great Britain.
During the blitz, Helen was sent to Suffolk, where she remained until the end of the war. At age 20, she answered a help-wanted ad looking for people to help rehabilitate survivors of Nazi concentration camps. She went to Bergen-Belsen in Germany to help the 20,000 survivors there. It was several months after liberation.
Nothing could have prepared Helen for what she found. She later described the scene: “I saw awful sights, amputees, gangrene, festering sores. People still looked terribly emaciated I began to realize the most important role for me there was to bear witness to the vulnerability of humanity.”
Helen said, “People wanted to tell their story and I was able to receive it. They would hold me and dig their fingers in and rasp this story out. They would rock back and forth and I would say to them, ‘I will tell your story. Your story will not die.’ It took me a long time to realize that that was all I could do.”
Helen stayed in Germany for two and a half years, offering comfort to the traumatized survivors as best she could. In 1947, she returned to England, where she continued her work with Holocaust survivors, especially children. Over the next several years, she worked with emotionally damaged child survivors, while studying psychotherapy at the London School of Economics.
With her experience rehabilitating traumatized children, Helen expanded her mission in the 1950’s and 60’s to include chronically ill children. Her own experience as a sick child gave her exceptional empathy for hospitalized kids. Helen successfully advocated for parents’ rights to stay with their sick child in the hospital, an innovation that significantly improved patient morale in pediatrics wards.
In the 1970’s, Helen focused on another group of suffering humans: victims of government-sponsored torture. She co-founded the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture, and conducted groundbreaking research into government torture in Chile, the USSR, and South Africa.
Helen believed that providing therapy to severely traumatized individuals meant “to receive, not to recoil” and sometimes to “simply sit rocking somebody while they tell their story.” She felt that listening and bearing witness was the most important aspect of her role as a therapist.
Helen continued working well into her 80’s. Her last years were spent helping victims of female genital mutilation, wartime rape, and human trafficking. She died in 2005 at age 89, having provided 7 decades of comfort to atrocity survivors.
The Helen Bamber Foundation continues its vital mission today: working with survivors of human cruelty.
For comforting the most vulnerable victims by listening and bearing witness to their suffering, we honor Helen Bamber as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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