Jane Haining: a Christian missionary who became the ‘Scottish Schindler’

Amid the carnage of the Second World War, there are many examples of individual bravery, self-sacrifice and kindness.

With that in mind, on the 70th anniversary of her death, few know the remarkable story of Jane Haining, a Presbyterian missionary dubbed the “Scottish Schindler”.

Born in the village of Dunscore in Dumfries and Galloway in 1897, Ms Haining joined Queen’s Park Govanhill Parish Church, in Glasgow, shortly after World War 1.

She answered the missionary call in 1932 by applying for the post of matron at a Budapest orphanage. In spite of an initial language barrier, she dedicated herself to teaching and caring for around 400 female students, most were Jewish, aged between six and sixteen.

Prior to the outbreak of war, she visited Scotland twice in 1935 and 1939, but her love for the children in her care saw her quickly return to Budapest.

A year later, as conditions in Europe worsened, the Church of Scotland ordered missionaries to return home. Haining refused. Her duty of care was unwavering.

In a letter to her sister, she wrote, “If these children need me in the days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in the days of darkness?”

In March 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary and soon occupied Budapest. As a result, she had to sew the yellow Star of David into the clothes of her orphan girls.

According to Moraig Reid, an elder at Queen’s Park Parish Church, the son-in-law of the school’s cook reported Miss Haining to the Gestapo, after she caught him stealing rations.

The Gestapo accused her of political activity, colluding with Jews and listening to the BBC. In May 1944, she was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp; her arm tattooed with the prisoner number 79467.

Haining (and others) did hard labour in the most appalling conditions. Their only source of sustenance was two bowls of watered down soup a day. Her last postcard to friends asked them for food. She signed off with the words: “There is not much to report here on the way to heaven.”

Two months later, she died of starvation, aged 47. A death certificate sent from Budapest indicated the cause of death was “cachexia following intestinal catarrh”.

A concentration camp survivor, Ben Helfgott, helped Miss Haining gain Jewish recognition, he told the Scotsman in 2009: “When the children were taken away she went with them to Auschwitz. She was not able to save them, but she looked after them. What she did was a supreme act of mercy and kindness.”

Her sacrifice is honoured at the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Israel. In 1997, she was posthumously added to the Righteous Among the Nations (a title awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust).

But in the UK, it took far longer to officially recognise her self-sacrifice and acts of resistance. The British Heroes of the Holocaust award was setup in 2010 and Jane Haining was among the 28 recipients. Her medal now safely rests in her home village of Dunscore.

At a time of great indifference to Jewish suffering, we should not forget the British names that did not wilt against the tyranny of Nazism to help Jews in their own individual ways.

Jane Haining’s story will inspire fellow Christians and non-Christians alike. She stayed with her Jewish students to the gates of Auschwitz. Her commitment to them never ceased.

Her story should remind us all that our capacity for love and kindness will always transcend faith, age, and language – as long as we keep hold of our humanity, and not view others in dehumanising terms.