Books | When the Nazis came, a Christian teacher would not desert her Jewish ‘daughters’
by Rod Gragg
Posted 3/18/17, 11:14 am
The loss of 6 million Jewish lives is, of course, the main tragedy of the Holocaust. A secondary one: Many non-Jews, even those who called themselves Christians, were passive—but not all. Rod Gragg’s My Brother’s Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust (a runner-up for WORLD’s 2016 Book of the Year in the history and ideology category) details the extraordinary courage of 30 ordinary people who believed Jewish lives mattered and did extraordinary things to preserve them. Among the heroes: a London stockbroker, a 13-year-old Austrian girl, a Scottish schoolteacher, and a French farming couple. Some were former Hitler supporters who became disillusioned and disgusted with his regime. For most, their Christian faith was the propelling force behind their sacrifice. In the excerpt below read about what Jane Haining endured after the Nazis came for her students at a predominantly Jewish boarding school in Budapest, Hungary. —Sophia Lee
Chapter 25: Jane Haining
Jane Haining was a schoolteacher from Scotland who taught in a predominantly Jewish school in Hungary. When the Nazis came for her students, she went first.
“How much more will they need me in the days of darkness?”
When she heard the wail of approaching sirens, Jane Haining knew what it meant: the Nazis were coming. The date was April 4, 1944, and Haining was a Scottish schoolteacher in Budapest, Hungary, presiding over a boarding school composed mainly of Jewish children. Teaching and caring for her Jewish students was Jane Haining’s life work. It was a call that she had accepted as a Christian more than twelve years earlier. In 1932, she had been a thirty-four-year-old single woman working as a secretary in a textile factory in Scotland. She was a member of the Church of Scotland, holding to Reformed or Presbyterian doctrine, and one night she attended a life-changing church missions program. There she learned about a church ministry in Hungary that included a school for Jewish orphans. Turning to a friend sitting beside her, she stated confidently, “I have found my life-work.”
An attractive young woman with dark hair, a light complexion, and sparkling blue eyes behind her round spectacles, Haining had a delicate appearance that belied a strong Scottish personality and a bold faith in Jesus Christ. She had grown up in a large farming family among the rugged, rocky blue ridges of southwestern Scotland, had lost her mother when she was only five, and had acquired an independent spirit and a zeal for learning. A bright student in her village grammar school, she was awarded a scholarship to a highly regarded Scottish academy, and then attended college in Glasgow and Edinburgh. She had become a Christian as a girl, had taught Sunday school while still a teenager, and was elated at the opportunity to become headmaster of the girls’ elementary program at the Scottish school in Budapest. There she thrived. She already spoke German, quickly learned to speak fluent Hungarian, and—despite a no-nonsense style in the classroom—soon became a beloved figure to her Jewish students, many of whom were orphans. “She was a very sympathetic person,” a former student later recalled. “So kind. So good. Everyone loved her very much.”
She returned the affection. Perhaps because she had lost her mother at an early age, she had a tender heart for children and especially for orphans. “We have one new little six-year-old, an orphan without a mother or a father,” she wrote in a letter home. “She is such a pathetic wee soul to look at, and I fear, poor lamb, has not been in too good surroundings. … She certainly does look as though she needs heaps and heaps of love.” About another child she wrote, “We have one nice little mite who is an orphan and is coming to school for the first time. She seems to be a lonely little wee soul and needs lots of love. We shall see what we can do to make life happier for her. … What a ghastly feeling it must be to know that no one wants you.” As the evil stain of Nazism spread through Europe and war erupted, the Scottish boarding school in Budapest became a sanctuary for its Jewish students. “Anti-Semitism presented itself in many places and forms in those times,” recalled a former student decades later, “but in the Scottish school I never sensed it either from the teachers or another student, either directly or indirectly. The Scotch was a warm nest. In the upper classes, I gained morality and that lasts a lifetime.”
Children who found themselves in need of a “warm nest” soared in numbers as World War II enveloped Hungary—especially in the nation’s Jewish community. An independent nation on the eve of the war, Hungary was headed by a regent, Miklós Horthy, who had been commander in chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in the First World War. He tried to steer Hungary on a course between fascism and communism, but under pressure from Hitler he reluctantly aligned the nation with Nazi Germany and sent the Hungarian army to fight alongside the Germans in the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. By late 1943, however, Hitler’s military forces had suffered reversals almost everywhere: The German army was being driven out of the Soviet Union toward Poland and Germany, had suffered defeat in North Africa and Sicily, and was in retreat in Italy. The Hungarian army, meanwhile, had suffered more than a hundred thousand casualties fighting the Soviets on the Eastern Front, and Regent Horthy did not want Hungary to go down with Nazi Germany, so he attempted to negotiate an armistice with the Allies. In response Hitler ordered German troops to invade Hungary in March of 1944, imprisoned Horthy, installed a fascist puppet government, and kept the Hungarian army in the fight against the Allies.
Hitler also demanded that Hungary’s eight hundred thousand Jews be deported for annihilation as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Already Hungarian Jews were under persecution, and more than forty thousand Jewish men had been sent to the Eastern Front as slave laborers, most never to return. Until the German invasion, however, Horthy and other Hungarian leaders had managed to keep most of Hungary’s Jews from being deported and killed in the Holocaust. Eventually, however, with the help of a savage Hungarian equivalent of the Nazi Party called the Arrow Cross Party, the SS and the Gestapo deported more than half a million Hungarian Jews to death camps, where most of them were murdered. Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, now an SS lieutenant colonel, arrived in Budapest the day the German army invaded, and with a contingent of six hundred troops took command of the Jewish deportations. Within ten days of his arrival, Hungarian Jews were forbidden to travel, use telephones, do any work besides common labor, or withdraw money from their bank accounts—and they were all ordered to wear a yellow cloth Star of David on their clothing. Soon thousands of Jews were being assembled in Budapest and herded into railway boxcars for deportation to Auschwitz and other death camps.
As she sewed the yellow stars on her students’ clothing, Jane Haining wept. Upon learning that the German army had invaded Hungary, officials in the Church of Scotland ordered Haining and the other Scots who worked at the Budapest mission to immediately return home—but she refused. To her, the Jewish schoolgirls she taught were her “daughters.” “If these children need me in the days of sunshine,” she explained, “how much more will they need me in the days of darkness?” Later, her sister commented on Haining’s refusal to flee to safety: “It was no surprise that she refused to come back. She would never have had a moment’s happiness if she had come home and left the children.” It was wrong, Haining declared, “to distinguish one child of one race and the child of another.” Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto Me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”—all children belonged to Jesus, she stated. As a British citizen, she was viewed as an enemy by the Nazi invaders, and an informer soon reported her opinions to the Gestapo.
As Budapest’s Jewish families were rounded up for deportation, she tried to reassure the children, and kept up a brave face. If her Jewish students were going to be deported to some terrible fate, Jane Haining was determined to go with them. She did—and the Nazis took her first. When the Gestapo came for her, they came in a car with a blaring siren. They searched her bedroom and her office, then they arrested her and took her away. She attempted to take her Bible with her, but one of the Gestapo agents ordered her to leave it behind, stating that she wouldn’t need it where she was going. She was reportedly charged with eight crimes, which included helping Jewish children and crying for them. The children cried for her as they stood outside the school and watched her get into the Gestapo car. As a last act, she turned and lovingly smiled at them. “I still feel the tears in my eyes. …” a surviving student later remembered. “I see the smile on her face as she bade farewell.” She was sentenced to deportation, and was loaded into a cattle car with the Jews of Hungary whom she had come to serve and had grown to love. Her destination was a Nazi concentration camp.
It was Auschwitz. Located about thirty-five miles west of the Polish city of Kraków, Auschwitz had been established on the site of a former Polish army post in 1940, and originally housed Polish slave laborers. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, approximately fifteen thousand Soviet prisoners of war were sent to the camp, where almost all died. More than seventy thousand Poles also died there, along with twenty-one thousand Gypsies and twelve thousand others, most of whom were targeted for death by the Nazi state as subhuman undesirables. Those shocking numbers were dwarfed by the mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz—which totaled more than one million between 1940 and 1945. At the time Jane Haining arrived there in the spring of 1944, the huge, sprawling facility was nearing its final stage and consisted of several concentration camps, industrial and armament facilities that contributed to the German war effort, and support facilities. By then Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution was at its peak: The tide of war had reversed itself and was surging against Germany, and the Nazi regime was frantically trying to destroy what remained of Europe’s Jewish population.
In the early summer of 1944, more than four thousand Hungarian Jews were killed at Auschwitz every day—and Jane Haining was among them. German authorities notified the Church of Scotland that Haining had died of illness; other evidence, however, revealed that she was executed with Hungarian Jewish women in a gas chamber at Auschwitz on August 16, 1944. If her experience at Auschwitz was typical for that time, she arrived at the facility’s railway station with incoming Hungarian Jews from Budapest, then was herded into the back of a transport truck and taken to Auschwitz’s processing center. There men and women prisoners were separated, with infants and small children remaining with the women. Everyone was required to turn over all valuables and remove their clothing. All prisoners, children included, had a serial number tattooed on the outside of their left forearm. Haining’s number was 79467. “You are only numbers,” an SS guard routinely told the newly tattooed prisoners. “A shot, and that number is gone. Don’t try to escape.” After a cursory examination by camp doctors, prisoners who were classified as able-bodied were assigned to labor camps, where they were worked to death or eventually executed in gas chambers.
“On the way to heaven.”
By the summer of 1944, most Jews were killed immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz, but as a political prisoner Haining was imprisoned for about two months before she was executed. If her experience was typical, she was issued wooden clog-type shoes and a striped, pajama-style prisoner uniform or the ragged clothes of an executed prisoner, and was housed in a filthy barracks that was infested with rats and illness. The sprawling Auschwitz complex was surrounded by a double barbed wire fence lit at night by searchlights, and kept under constant view by SS troops in watchtowers armed with machine guns. Prisoners were fed a starvation diet of meager vegetable broth, were awakened at four thirty a.m. for a grueling twelve-hour workday, and slept on wooden racks in rooms that were crowded far beyond their intended capacity. For Jews especially, the labor was intentionally so brutal that many prisoners quickly died of exhaustion. In the few weeks before her death, Haining was allowed to write a postcard to her superiors at the Church of Scotland. Her telling observation, which somehow got past Nazi censors, reflected her understanding of what lay ahead for her—in this life and afterward: “There is not much to report here on the way to heaven.”
Multiple gas chambers and crematoriums expertly designed by German engineers had been constructed at Auschwitz, and by mid-1944 were killing Jewish prisoners with shocking efficiency. On at least one occasion, however, Jewish prisoners herded toward the gas chamber realized that they were about to be executed, and revolted—but were all shot to death. In another incident, the Auschwitz Sonderkommando—Jewish prisoners forced to move the dead from the gas chambers to the crematoriums—armed themselves with work tools and hand grenades smuggled in from the camp armaments factory and attacked their guards, hoping to fight their way out. They managed to kill several SS guards, but almost all were shot down, and several hundred other prisoners were executed in retaliation. Most Holocaust victims simply had no opportunity to revolt or hope of surviving if they tried.
The German commanders who oversaw the Holocaust death camps kept meticulous records, which preserved a detailed account of the horrible experience endured by the Jews of Auschwitz and other prisoners—such as Jane Haining—when they were eventually overtaken by the Nazi Final Solution. Hundreds at a time, the women and children prisoners followed by the men, were herded through a cordon of SS guards and guard dogs into an undressing room adjacent to a gas chamber. There they were handed soap and towels, and were told to undress so they could take a shower—with instructions to neatly fold their clothes so they could easily retrieve them later. If anyone became suspicious and resisted, guards beat them with clubs. The gas chambers at Auschwitz were fitted with inoperable overhead shower nozzles, which were designed to deceive victims until the last moment and thus reduce the possibility of resistance. Typically, about two thousand people were crammed into the gas chamber. Then the door was closed and bolted, and the lights were turned off. From the roof above, an SS technician wearing a gas mask then dropped large tablets of Zyklon B—the fumigation poison—through an air-sealed opening into the room below. The tablets immediately emitted a deadly gas, which usually killed everyone in the gas chamber within five minutes.
After thirty minutes the chamber was aired out, the door was opened, and prison laborers wearing gas masks dragged out the bodies, removed gold teeth from the dead for the Nazi treasury, and clipped the women’s hair, which was used to make soft shoe coverings for German submarine crewmen. The bodies were carted to the crematorium, where they were burned in an oven, or they were placed in large piles outside and burned. Despite German efficiency, the disposal of the bodies could not keep up with the number of people gassed to death. In January 1945, Soviet forces reached the Polish city of Kraków and liberated Auschwitz. Before their arrival, the SS tried to kill as many Jews and others as possible, then put sixty thousand survivors on a forced march that killed more than fifteen thousand people. When Soviet troops captured the giant camp, they found only about seven thousand prisoners still alive. Some of Jane Haining’s Jewish students somehow survived the Holocaust, and they never forgot her. “Those children who were in the home, they adored her,” one recalled. “She was a real mother of her ‘daughters.’” After Haining’s death, the Bible she had been forced to leave behind was discovered at the Scottish school. In it was a bookmark, and on it—in her handwriting—was a Bible verse from the New Testament book of Mark: “Be not afraid, only believe.”
From My Brother’s Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust by Rod Gragg. Copyright © 2016 by Rod Gragg. Used by permission of Center Street, a division of the Hachette Book Group USA Inc. All rights reserved.