Woman makes pilgrimage to Auschwitz in honour of hero aunt
A Northern Ireland woman has made an emotional pilgrimage to Auschwitz to honour the aunt who sacrificed her life to protect Jewish schoolgirls.
Deirdre McDowell visited the death camp in what was then Nazi-occupied Poland where a wreath was laid in memory of Jane Haining, who died alongside dozens of young children she taught.
Mrs McDowell, from the Waterside area of Londonderry, said standing on the same ground her aunt would have walked on during her internment gave her an incredible connection to the suffering of those who perished there.
Jane Haining, who grew up in Dunscore near Dumfries in Scotland, worked at the Kirk-run Scottish Mission School in Budapest from 1932 to 1944. There, for four years during the Second World War, she protected the Jewish girls in her charge from the Nazis.
She was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1944. A former pupil said her haunting last words to sobbing children were: "Don't worry, I'll be back by lunch."
Miss Haining was taken to prison in Budapest, where she spent several months before being transferred Auschwitz, where she died three months later.
Mrs McDowell, who was also a teacher, told the Belfast Telegraph she is humbled by the incredible bravery of her aunt.
"My husband and I went to Auschwitz as part of a Unison group who went there for International Workers' Day and who were leaving a memorial at the Workers' monument," she said.
"People often say to me about how proud I must be, but it is actually more humbling to think that an aunt of mine did these incredible things."
Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps. Over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives there. Around 90% of those were Jews; approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died there.
When prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, they were selected either for forced labour or immediate execution. Their heads were shaved, their belongings taken. All suffered appalling cruelty.
Mrs McDowell said visiting the camp made the horror of its past life all the more apparent.
She added: "It was really so emotional to be in Auschwitz and follow in her footsteps - to imagine what it would have been like for her and all those others to arrive there off the railway line in a wagon that would have had no ventilation.
"I had never thought of her as having had her head shaved until I was there but it struck me for the first time when I was standing there that she would have been taken along and had her hair shaved and been stripped.
"It was hard to take in that she is related to us. We saw so much footage of the horrors and of the millions who died there.
"She stayed there with the children she taught even though the Church of Scotland wanted her to come back home.
"She was like a mother to them and she was wasn't going to leave them. She said if they needed her during peace times then they needed her so much more in the days of darkness.
"In Auschwitz, they know about her now and they are going to get something in the museum about her, perhaps her picture and the last letter she wrote just two days before her death.
"It will be lovely to have her commemorated there because she was one of the very few English-speaking people killed there."
Mrs McDowell's mother Amy - Jane Haining's half sister - settled in Northern Ireland, where her nine nieces and nephews grew up hearing stories of their remarkable aunt.
Miss Haining also featured in a special Antiques Roadshow about the Holocaust, which five of her nieces from Londonderry took part in. In the programme a ring belonging to their aunt was discussed by the experts.
She was posthumously included in the Righteous Among The Nations in Jerusalem's sacred Yad Vashem - Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust - in 1997. The honour is used by the state of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
In 2010, the UK Government posthumously awarded her a Hero of the Holocaust medal.
Mrs McDowell's brother Robert O'Brien said the recognition of their aunt's bravery and courage is important to the whole family.
"I was born about five years after the end of the war but from when I was a teenage boy my mother told us about Jane Haining and I had read her story in a little booklet," he said.
"The Church of Scotland is very proactive in promoting Jane's story, which is wonderful.
"The little church she attended in Dunscore is very active in keeping her memory alive.
"There is a heritage section at the church where one part is dedicated to the story of Jane Haining and outside there is a little cairn overlooking the valley she would have known as a child which is also dedicate to her.
"They found in their archives a box which contained some of her possessions, including a will she had made and the last letter she wrote from inside Auschwitz.
"It is very gratifying for us that more and more people are learning of how brave and courageous she was and of the incredible suffering she endured rather than leave the children she taught."