From Matron to Martyr
A brief account of how this story was discovered and grew!
I love to tell the story of Scottish missionary Jane Haining, but I enjoy almost as much telling how I came to research and write the story. Many people say this should be a second book…
It must be understood that Jane’s story was known by a very small group of people in Scotland, even fewer in Budapest and absolutely no-one anywhere else. So finding out about her life was sure to be a real mission.
So here briefly is the story behind the story!
Discovering the story
In 2005 my mother died, but some weeks before that, she gave me a little booklet put out by the Church of Scotland, named Jane Haining of Budapest. The story was about a distant relative of mine and my mother had been given the booklet by her sister, who had visited the Church of Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh a few years before.
I read the book and found it very moving, so much so that I couldn’t put it down. But the story was very brief and incomplete. My journalistic instincts told me this was a good story, but it was more than that. It was a meaningful story.
One person who I respected very much for his insight, told me I would write a book. I wondered what book and very soon came to the conclusion that this story must be it. As a Christian I regularly read my Bible and a scripture, Isaiah 45: 2 – 3 almost jumped off the page as I read. Within days, my pastor’s wife, as I told her about my decision to write this story, independently said she had a scripture for me – Isaiah 45: 2-3! I have been given that same scripture two more times since then. Basically the scripture promises that God will go before me and push aside any barriers for me. Also that he will give me a treasure hidden in a dark place.
As I prayed, the Lord also showed me why he wanted me to write the book. The story of Jane’s life was, He said, like a love letter. It showed the enormous love God has for His chosen people, just the same sort of sacrificial love Jane Haining had for the Jewish children of Budapest, for whom she died.
That convinced me. I bought a round the world ticket, resigned my job in New Zealand as a journalist, and headed off to walk in Jane’s footsteps, to find out who this woman really was.
Journey of discovery
Jane had not left a paper trail of letters or diaries etc, so I was going to have to use all my journalistic skills to find enough material to write this story. Amazingly, wherever I went people just seemed to pop up with a piece of the jigsaw puzzle of her life. In these few but special people, there was a real passion to keep her story alive.
My journey became a journey of ‘it just so happened”s. The first one was in Dumfries, where I visited the local newspaper, not knowing who else to talk to, to find out about Jane’s early life. It just so happened that a former senior staff member of the paper was a history buff who knew a bit about Jane and her life in Dunscore village. He took me there and showed me the relevant sites.
Next step was to Glasgow, where it just so happened that the secretary of the church Jane Haining had attended in Glasgow was interested in her story. This lady was able to tell me quite a lot about Jane’s life in Glasgow, especially in relation to her church activities.
Then on to Edinburgh. Jane had been a missionary for the Church of Scotland, so I went to their headquarters on George St. They had a small shoe box of information and photos – not much, but my information was gradually building up. The National Library of Scotland also had a small archive on this national hero.
Budapest was a series of ‘just so happened’s. I unknowingly booked into a hostel which just so happened to be only a couple of blocks away from the former location of the Scottish mission where Jane had worked. It just so happened that a lady at St Columba’s Church (Scottish mission church next to the school/former mission) was at the service I attended and she had access to a whole lot of testimonies by students and teachers who had been at the mission when Jane was there. These testimonies had been collected in 1985 and were in English! They were invaluable in discerning what sort of person Jane had been.
I took a night train to Krakow and planned to travel out to Auschwitz Concentration Camp from there to see where Jane died. The temperature was -15 degrees Celsius – freezing cold! I had only 12 hours in Poland to complete my research before returning on the next night train to Budapest. I could not go by public transport to Auschwitz – too cold. I walked from the train station to the centre of town in search of an information office to find a tour bus to Auschwitz. It just so happened as I was walking along the street, a man came alongside me, walking in the same direction. He had a bunch of leaflets in his hand. They were ………….. leaflets for a bus tour to Auschwitz!!!!!!!!!
I signalled him (he didn’t understand a word of English and I understand no Polish) and he gave me a leaflet. He then beckoned me, and as I felt I was protected and guided by God in this, I followed him. He led me to a bus tour office several streets away that I would never have found on my own. Outside was a bus, which was to leave in 15 minutes for Auschwitz. It was the only bus going that day because the weather was so cold. So I got my Auschwitz tour and gathered what information was available there.
My adventures hadn’t ended however. On the train trip back to Budapest that night, the carriage in front of mine caught fire. Smoke began to billow through my carriage and two guards raced through with fire extinguishers! Apparently the brakes had overheated and caught fire. Once the fire was extinguished, the Polish and Hungarian railway personnel spent half an hour in a raucous argument about whose fault it was, and whether the train could continue. I was very thankful that shortly after, the train started grunting and groaning and began to move, as it would have been a very long and cold walk through 1.5 metre deep snow to the nearest road.
There were many other amazing things happen as I travelled. I felt very protected, even to British Airways conveniently lifting their strike just in time for my plane to take off on time from Budapest so I could make all my connections and start my journey home.
Nine months later
I returned to New Zealand, wrote the book in three months and then was delighted to receive an invitation from the Jewish community in Budapest to return there for its first ever commemoration of Jane’s life in its own community centre. It was a privilege to be there.
But the final detail hadn’t come to pass yet. I hadn’t found the treasure hidden in a dark place! While in Budapest this time, I received a call to say that two books had just been discovered in a very old safe at St Columba’s Church. They were Jane Haining’s Bible (which had gone mysteriously missing at the time of her arrest) and another book which she had been presented with as a school prize. So here was the treasure, which had lain under some old papers in a dark safe for goodness knows how long!
My book was then published.
Back to Budapest
Another trip to Budapest – this time to see if I could get my book published in Hungarian. We had the support of the Jewish community to tell this story. We needed a publisher. My Hungarian friend gave my book to the second biggest publishing company, Libri (actually to a subsidiary, Helikon). Of course the chances of a secular Hungarian publisher wanting to publish the work of a New Zealand author about a Scottish missionary were very slim. But if something was meant to happen, it would!
We returned to meet the publisher some days later, once he had read the story. He sat, looked at us and simply said: “This story must be told!” So there it was. We had the support of a secular publisher.
The only support we did not yet have, was that of the Hungarian Church, which had played a part in protecting the mission during the war. So we decided to go to the Reformed Church of Hungary head office to ask for a letter of support.
It was 6pm on a Friday afternoon by the time we had ‘hatched’ our plan. It just so happened that the bed and breakfast place I was staying in was around the corner from the Reformed Church headquarters! We arrived outside their gate, but of course we were much too late. Everyone had gone home. What to do now?
While standing there considering our options (we didn’t seem to have any) a man appeared, walking along the street. I don’t know where he came from. He stopped and asked us what we were doing and we explained that we wanted to talk to someone at the Reformed Church head office about my book.
It just so happened that this man was the head of the Education Department of the Reformed Church of Hungary and he was exactly the person we needed to talk to. He invited us back the next week to pick up the letter and disappeared around the corner. I have no idea why he was walking on the street as he wasn’t even going into the headquarters, nor had he come from them. It appeared as though someone had prompted him to walk along the street at that vital moment just for us!
So my book was published in Hungarian in October, 2014.
Amazing opportunities to tell Jane’s story
The story of ‘just so happened’s still went on, this time in amazing opportunities to tell Jane’s story to all sorts of groups. Many time, when I have phoned up a library, school or other group or organisation, the person I have needed to talk to was either Jewish, or very interested in the Holocaust and stories about it.
One good example is when I was visiting Chesapeake, Virginia, USA. I decided I should approach a local Baptist Church and ask if they would like me to tell them about Jane Haining. The place was large, like a fortress with many entrance doors all firmly locked. After circling the building twice, I found a door which had a bell. I rang it and heard scurrying footsteps inside. A lady came, opened the door and showed me into the pastor’s reception office.
It just so happened that this lady, the receptionist, had just returned from a trip to Germany, where she had visited a concentration camp. Her interest in those war years had been sparked by this experience. She was immediately drawn to Jane’s story. She showed me in to the pastor’s office. The pastor, who was half Jewish, immediately asked me to speak in an evening service the next week in the church.
Hungary’s ‘just so happened’s
Amazing things have happened in Hungary since the book was written. In 2010, the Budapest City Council decided to rename quite a few important central streets after Righteous Among the Nations (award given by Yad Vashem to gentiles who courageously helped Jews during the war.)
For some reason that remains a mystery, a significant stretch of the embankment alongside the Danube River, right in the middle of Budapest, was renamed Jane Haining Rakpart. What is so astounding about that is that barely anyone in Budapest has any idea who Jane Haining was!!
Then in 2012, the Hungarian government decided to have a whole year of commemoration of the war, and the victims of it, during 2014 (70 years since the Great Transportation of Jews to Auschwitz). It just so happened that a Hungarian lady decided to make a DVD of her life with funding provided by the government for commemoration year events. This DVD would be launched as part of the year of commemoration. It just so happened that this lady, who I had never heard of, was more than happy to host the launch of the Hungarian edition of my book at the event at which she launched her DVD.
So there we were, two people (as I quickly found out) with a special connection to Jane’s story, each telling that story – one with a book, one with a DVD. I am a distant relative of Jane and the DVD producer is a great niece of Jane’s best Hungarian friend at the mission during those war years. I can’t think of a more fitting way to launch the story commemorating her life. I couldn’t have visualised such an appropriate way to do it. Surely there was another hand behind, orchestrating that!
And so it goes on……
No doubt the story of the ‘just so happened’s has not yet finished. Frequently, when I make contact about doing a talk, the person who speaks to me is someone who is in some way connected to the topic of the Holocaust. The contact person at the New Zealand Holocaust Centre where I did a talk just so happened to be a Holocaust survivor himself and what is more, he hailed from Budapest!
And so it goes on…….
Truly the story isn’t finished yet ……..
In September, 2016, an employee at the headquarters of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh decided to clean up the attic. In it was found a shoe box, containing some photos of Jane in Budapest with ‘her’ children, but more importantly, her handwritten will, dated 1942. It must have been sitting in that attic since then. The will instructed on the disbursement of Jane’s scant possessions (a fur coat, a typewriter, a radio, and not much else). Clearly Jane knew in 1942 that she was in danger. She could not travel back to Scotland, so obviously got someone to take her will back to the Scottish church headquarters.
Along with the will, a garnet ring was found,
which Jane had acquired in Budapest. The story of these finds went viral with CNN, BBC and other major news outlets picking up on it. Finally Jane’s story is becoming known!