Jane Haining’s remarkable story begins in rural Dumfriesshire and goes on to cover much of Britain, Western Europe, and, most notably, the Hungarian capital city of Budapest. It was in that charming and historic city that she found her life’s work – running a girl’s school on behalf of the Church of Scotland Mission to the Jews. It was while in Budapest that she resisted the encroaching and eventually all-consuming Nazi machine, aiding and assisting Jewish children and their families to evade the terror inflicted upon them. She met her untimely end in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944 but not without a fight. In Jane Haining: A Life of Love and Courage, Mary Miller brings the underappreciated life of this heroic woman to a new audience.
It would be easy to be morbid and downbeat when focussing on a life cut short by such unimaginable horror, but A Life of Love and Courage sidesteps this simple option in favour of a larger challenge. Through the use of sharp observation, clever editing, and a knack for conveying humanity and relatability, Miller’s telling of Haining’s life evokes the optimism and hope that Haining herself represents. By focusing on her early life for much of the book and then on her brave, typically Scottish perseverance and determination to keep her school open and her young charges safe, the reader is left with a role model to follow rather than a lost life to mourn.
Miller’s narrative is peppered with interesting observations and speculations on how her heroine would have felt or expressed herself which feel genuinely authentic – partly because of how much esteem the author has for her subject and partly due to the talent Miller has for empathy.
In telling any story set during the turmoil and suffering of the Second World War there is always the risk that the war itself will overshadow everything. However, by keeping her essential account of the bittersweet life of Jane Haining wholly personal and tightly focused on one individual and her immediate circle, Miller never loses the emotional impact that is clearly both her goal and the very least Haining deserves.
The story of Jane Haining may not be especially well-known but if there is any justice then this weighty account will garner it some much-needed attention.