Helen Bamber obituary

Tireless campaigner for human rights who fought for the victims of torture and cruelty

Helen Bamber, who has died aged 89, was renowned for her lifetime pursuit of human rights for those who faced the worst kinds of inhumanity. She worked with people who had suffered torture, trafficking, slavery, the effects of war and other forms of extreme cruelty. Over almost 70 years, she helped tens of thousands to confront the horror and brutality of their experiences. It was her belief that through restoring dignity to those who have suffered atrocity, we find dignity and humanity in ourselves.

She was born Helen Balmuth to a Polish-Jewish family in north London, the only child of Louis, an accountant, and Marie, a singer. Strong beliefs in human rights pervaded the household. Her father taught her about the threat of Nazism at an early age, reading to her from Mein Kampf and translating Nazi speeches demonstrating how language could be manipulated and, with it, public opinion.

In 1945, Helen responded to a call for volunteers to help survivors of the concentration camps set up by the Nazis. At the age of 20, she joined the Jewish Relief Unit under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to enter the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where she worked for two years. She said: "There was nothing at times that I could do for the survivors, other than to listen and to bear witness to the rasping out of their story. Many were to die, but all I could say was, 'Your story will be told, I will be your witness.'" Bearing witness and refusing to be a bystander remained themes throughout her life's work.

On her return to Britain in 1947, Helen was appointed to the Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps and became responsible for 722 orphaned children who had survived Auschwitz. In the same year, she married Rudi Bamberger, a German Jewish refugee, who later anglicised his name to Bamber. The couple had two sons, Jonathan (now a geologist) and David (now an organisational change consultant), who survive her.

Helen joined Amnesty International shortly after its inception in 1961. She chaired the British section's first medical group, which developed a systematic approach to documenting the physical and psychological injuries arising from state-sponsored torture around the world. She found that documenting injuries alone was not enough and that survivors of human rights abuses and their families were also in desperate need of support to overcome what had happened to them. Helen began providing therapy, alongside a team of doctors, to deal with the aftermath of trauma, during which people become haunted, unable to trust others and debilitated by flashbacks and nightmares. In Latin America, she worked with the "disappeared" and tortured in Chile, Argentina and Nicaragua. Perico Rodriguez, a torture survivor from Argentina who was helped by Helen in the 1970s remembers "her determination to help everybody. And I really mean everybody, not just those 'deserving' of help, but everybody who needed help."

In 1985, Helen founded the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (now known as Freedom From Torture) in response to a call from British doctors who said they did not have time to deal with the complexities of torture survivors coming to the UK or "to listen to their silences".

Here, she pioneered a treatment approach aimed at achieving what she termed "creative survival". It was her view that therapy in isolation was not sufficient. If a person's recovery following atrocity was to be sustained, then it was necessary for that person also to feel safe. She combined legal protection and the prevention of social deprivation with therapy and rehabilitation as the cornerstones of care for those whose lives had been shattered. As she put it: "One cannot give therapy if a person does not feel safe, if there is no food or a roof over your head. The rehabilitative aim is centred on the purpose of freeing victims from a form of bondage through which the torturer ensures that his interventions will last over time." Simple, yet profound. Her approach is still considered ahead of its time.

Helen remained at the helm of the medical foundation for almost 20 years. In 2005, relentless and tireless even at 80, in response to changing patterns of global violence and an increasingly hostile political landscape, she and Michael Korzinski founded the Helen Bamber Foundation. The new foundation had a broader remit and included not only torture survivors, but those who had suffered other forms of human rights violations, including those brutalised by criminal gangs, trafficked for labour or sexual exploitation or kept as slaves by profiteers or families, who often sought international protection but continued to be dehumanised as liars, cheats or asylum seekers.

As the culmination of her life's work, at the Helen Bamber Foundation, it was her intention to hand over to others the knowledge accumulated over many years. She created a team to share her vision of compassion for those "whose voices are taken away twice – first by the perpetrator, and then by those decision makers whose language denies the experience of atrocity and loss, thereby colluding with the very intention of the perpetrator to destroy the truth of that person".

Helen's ability to speak truth to power and represent those who she considered the most marginalised was a rare and inspiring quality that earned her great respect. The former president of the European court of human rights, Sir Nicolas Bratza, described her as "a formidable force of nature who earned and commanded the respect of all who had the good fortune to meet her". The actor Juliet Stevenson has stated that "Helen's capacity to speak from the heart while reasoning with her laser-like intelligence and clarity of purpose made her a phenomenal advocate". Sir Geoffrey Bindman, lawyer and specialist in human rights, said: "She ranks high among the outstanding humanitarians of our time."

In recognition of her work, Helen was named European Woman of Achievement in 1993, made an OBE in 1997, and received the inaugural Times/Sternberg Active Life award in 2008 for continuing to "assert the questing spirit of humanity". She held honorary degrees from Oxford, Dundee, Glasgow, Essex, Ulster, Kingston and Oxford Brookes universities.

The actor Colin Firth, whom Helen helped to prepare for his role of the torture survivor Eric Lomax in the 2013 film The Railway Man, said: "I marvelled that anyone could find the strength to engage with so many desperate stories without being engulfed by them." Lomax himself wrote: "Meeting with [Helen] was like walking through a door into an unexplored world, of caring and special understanding."

• Helen Bamber, human rights campaigner, born 1 May 1925; died 21 August 2014


TJ Birdi

The GuardianTramp

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