Jane Haining was arrested while working in the girls’ residence at the Scottish Jewish Mission School in Budapest during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Her final letter, written from Auschwitz to a friend, is in the NLS collection. It testifies to her courage and dedication to those in her care.
Alison Metcalfe is the Manuscripts Curator of Missionary and Military Archives at the National Library of Scotland
Along with the innumerable printed books one might expect to find in a library with its origins in the 17th century, the National Library of Scotland is home to an outstanding collection of archives and manuscripts. Alongside the papers of well-known Scottish figures in fields such as literature, politics, religion, military history, science and engineering, sit those of ordinary, less well-known Scots caught up in extraordinary events. One such item in my curatorial remit is within the Church of Scotland’s World Missions archive. This is an enormous and complex archive, which has been part of the Library’s collections since the 1950s. Scottish Presbyterian overseas mission began from the late 18th century, and Scottish missionaries were active around the globe, particularly in parts of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, and China, as well as closer to home in Europe.
The stand-out item for me is a single page, unremarkable at first glance, written in blue pencil on flimsy, yellowing, mid-twentieth century paper in what might seem to be a fairly youthful hand, due to its carefully formed letters. On closer inspection, the letter is written in German, but it is the stamp and postmark on the reverse of the text which immediately reveal the context in which it was written. The page is headed ‘Konzentrationslager Auschwitz’, and is the last known letter of Jane Haining, a Scot who died in the camp.
Jane Haining was born at Lochenhead Farm in Dunscore on the 6 June 1897. From the village school, she attained a scholarship to attend Dumfries Academy, where she went on to win a number of school prizes. After training for a commercial role, Jane was employed as a secretary at J. P. Coats, the thread manufacturer in Paisley, where she was to remain for around 10 years. Jane’s interest in missionary work became firmly established while in Glasgow, where she attended Queen’s Park West United Free Church, close to her home in Pollokshields. Recognising her vocation, Jane left Coats, and undertook further training before being appointed as matron of the girls’ home in the Church of Scotland’s Jewish mission in Budapest. After a spell at St Colm’s women’s missionary training college in Edinburgh, she left for Hungary in June 1932.
Jane settled quickly in Budapest, where she was responsible for fifty boarders at the Scottish school, which had around 400 pupils. The majority of the pupils were Jewish, and the Christian faith was taught to all, although Hungarian law forbade conversion of those under 18 years of age. Letters from Jane to her family written during her first few years at the school, as well as later interviews with some of her former pupils, provide evidence of the caring nature Jane demonstrated at the school, where she was like a surrogate mother to the children, particularly those without parents of their own.
During 1938-1939, Nazi expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia pushed large numbers of refugees into Hungary, increasing the numbers of Jewish children seeking sanctuary in the Scottish school. At the same time, anti-Semitic propaganda deepened hatred towards Jews in Hungary. When war came, Jane was on holiday in Cornwall with her friend and colleague Margit Prém, having spent time in Scotland speaking about their work in Budapest. Both returned immediately to the school. The following year, the Church of Scotland directed Jane to return home, but with characteristic determination to put the children first, she declined. As contact with Edinburgh became increasingly difficult, the Hungarian Reformed Church took charge of the mission, and Jane worked with them to keep the school running.
Following the Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944, anti-Jewish measures intensified. Witnesses later reported that Jane wept as she was forced to sew yellow Stars of David onto the clothes of her Jewish charges. Within a few short weeks, Gestapo officers arrived at the school and Jane was arrested. She admitted all charges against her, except that of being politically active, and was imprisoned before being transferred to Auschwitz in May 1944. Once there, she was tattooed with the number 79467 and declared fit to work.
Jane wrote her letter to Margit Prém on 15 July 1944. It is mostly concerned for the welfare of those still at the school: ‘How are you all? I think of you day and night lovingly and longingly. I’m waiting for news of what everyone is doing….’ Some lines hint at the privations we know were suffered at the camp, as she writes asking for her name to be given to the British Red Cross and for parcels of ‘apples, fresh fruit and biscuits, rusks, bread-stuffs of that kind, because of course the Red Cross doesn’t send things like that.’
The letter has been transcribed and translated but some sections are faint and very difficult to read, leading to ambiguity about what is written. One sentence has attracted more debate than any other, with some interpreting Jane’s words that ‘there are mountains on the horizon here too, further away than ours to be sure’ to read not as a literal description, but as a reference to heaven, suggesting that she perhaps then felt heaven to be close to her.
Regardless of how we choose to interpret the text – 75 years on and knowing what we now know of Auschwitz – this is a personal letter intended only to be read by a friend, and we can never really know for sure what meaning Jane intended her words to impart. For me, what the letter does not say is perhaps of greater significance than what is written on the page, and what makes it so poignant. It is hard not to wonder what Jane had gone through up until this point, and to reflect on what passed through her mind as she sat down to write.
Jane died two days after she wrote this letter. A death certificate stated that she died in hospital on 17 July 1944 of natural causes. However, recent research on Jane’s prisoner number has found that to be the same date on which she was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau, leading to the almost inescapable conclusion that Jane died in the gas chambers there.
Jane was granted the honour of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 1997, and tributes in Scotland include two stained glass windows at her old church in Glasgow, and a memorial created by pupils at her former school, Dumfries Academy. And, of course, this remarkable sheet of paper preserved in the National Library’s collections.
A new book by Mary Miller, Jane Haining: a Life of Love and Courage is published by Birlinn in April 2019. Mary Miller will give a talk at the National Library of Scotland on Tuesday, 16 April 2019. (Event information is here.)