Obituary: Emma Thompson and Colin Firth lead tributes to pioneering human rights activist Helen Bamber

08:00 31 August 2014

Human rights campaigner Helen Bamber who has died aged 89. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Human rights campaigner Helen Bamber who has died aged 89. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton email

A trailblazing human rights campaigner who has died aged 89 has been remembered as a “beacon of hope for humanity” by family, celebrity figures, charities and Jewish organisations.

Charity founder Helen Bamber, who lived in Muswell Hill for more than 40 years, dedicated nearly 70 years of her life to fighting for victims of conflict, violence and atrocity.

She started her long campaigning career at the age of 20, when she became one of the first to enter former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen and rehabilitate Holocaust survivors in 1945 at the end of the Second World War.

Throughout the rest of her life she tirelessly championed the most marginalised in society.

This work culminated in the founding of the Camden Town-based Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF), a charity providing support to victims of human rights violations, when Ms Bamber was aged 80 in 2005.

Hollywood actress Emma Thompson, president of the HBF, paid tribute to her “life-long friend”, who died last Thursday.

Ms Thompson, of West Hampstead, said: “What struck me first was her extraordinary capacity to listen. It was, in itself, an act of healing. She has borne witness every day of her life. For that reason her dedication to the dispossessed and tortured had, I believe, no rival. I will always and forever be grateful for her example.”

Born in 1925 as Helen Balmuth, Ms Bamber grew up in Stamford Hill and was taught about the rise of fascism and persecution of the Jews in Europe by her politico grandfather.

As a teenager in the late 1930s, she kickstarted her lifetime of campaign work by joining protesters opposing far right political party, the British Group of Fascists.

Following her return to Britain from Bergen-Belsen in 1947, Ms Bamber was appointed to the Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps, where she was responsible for the welfare of 722 orphaned children who survived Auschwitz.

The same year, she married German Jewish refugee Rudi Bamberger, who changed his name to the more British-sounding Bamber. The couple had two sons together, Jonathan, now a glaciologist, and David, a management consultant, but they divorced in 1970 after 23 years of marriage.


Her son Jonathan remembered: “It is hard to put into words the pride I feel for what my mother achieved, the thousands of lives she touched and the incredible difference she made to so many.

“She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her and a beacon of hope for humanity.”

Ms Bamber joined Amnesty International shortly after it was founded in 1961, and became the first chairman of its British Medical Group, whose work inspired the British Medical Association to create a working group on torture.

Reaching retirement age didn’t stop her ceaseless dedication, and at age 65, she founded Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in 1985, which became Freedom From Torture.

After 17 years as the charity’s director, she then founded the HBF, which receives 1,000 referrals every year from victims of torture, human trafficking and other violations.

Dozens have paid tribute to Ms Bamber’s life this week, including actor Colin Firth, Highgate actress Juliet Stevenson, human rights charities, Jewish organisations, and former European Court of Human Rights president Sir Nicolas Bratza.

The London Jewish Cultural Centre, in Golders Green, said: “We believe that once in every generation there are a limited number of righteous people. Helen Bamber should be counted amongst that number.”

Helen Bamber is survived by her two sons and granddaughter, Maya.


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