We hear much about Christians, who did nothing while the Holocaust was going on all around them. But not all Christians were passive in the face of this great evil. Rod Gragg’s My Brother’s Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust (2016) details the extraordinary courage of 30 ordinary people who believed Jewish lives mattered and did extraordinary things to preserve them. Among the heroes: Scottish schoolteacher Jane Haining, who, when the Nazis came, stayed with her students at a predominantly Jewish boarding school in Budapest, Hungary. The excerpt that follows was taken from chapter 25 of that book.
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, 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.”
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, 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.
She thrived there. 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 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 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 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 school was a warm nest.”
…Hitler ordered German troops to invade Hungary in March of 1944 and installed a fascist puppet government… Hitler also demanded that Hungary’s eight hundred thousand Jews be deported for annihilation as part of the Nazi Final Solution… Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann 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?” 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.” 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, arrested her, and took her away… The children cried for her as they stood outside the school and watched her get into the Gestapo car. 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 the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz… In the early summer of 1944, more than four thousand Hungarian Jews were being 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.
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… 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 reflected her understanding of what lay ahead for her—in this life and afterward: “There is not much to report here on my way to heaven.”
…In January 1945, Soviet forces reached the Polish city of Kraków and liberated Auschwitz… 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 adored her,” one recalled. “She was a real mother of her ‘daughters.’”
After Haining’s death, her Bible was discovered at the 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.”
Some children that survived Auschwitz and were liberated in January 1945
Jane Haining (1897-1944)
Mark 5:36b — (Jesus said), “Be not afraid, only believe.”
Genesis 4:9b — “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Matthew 19:14a — Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”
O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg, 1978, (prayer #166)