When World War II broke out in 1939, Jane Haining was vacationing in Cornwall, England, but she immediately returned to her post as a matron in the girls’ home of the Scottish Missionary School in Budapest, Hungary. Over the next five years, Haining would risk her own life to care for more than 300 of the school’s pupils, many of whom were Jewish. Betrayed to the Gestapo, she was sent to do forced labor at the notorious Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in May 1944; she died that July. Now, the discovery of Haining’s handwritten will, along with previously unpublished photographs and documents, in Scottish church archives is shedding new light on her extraordinary heroism.
“To be opened in the event of my death,” Jane Haining wrote on the envelope containing her last will and testament, dated July 1942 and recently rediscovered in a long-forgotten box in the archives of the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council, in Edinburgh. In the document, she lays out who should receive any “money left after meeting funeral expenses,” along with her possessions, including a wireless radio, fur coat, typewriter and watches.
At the time she wrote her will, Haining had been working as a matron at the Scottish Missionary School in Budapest, Hungary, for a decade. Born in 1897, she grew up on a farm near Dunscore, in Dumfriesshire, and spent 10 years working as a secretary in a thread company. In the early 1930s, Haining moved to Budapest, where she took charge of several hundred students—many of them members of the city’s growing Jewish population—at the missionary school.
Researchers at the World Mission Council stumbled across Haining’s will while rummaging through the archives in preparation for an exhibition in Budapest commemorating the upcoming 175th anniversary of the founding of the Church of Scotland Mission there. In addition to the will, the box where it was found also held some 70 previously unpublished photographs of Miss Haining (as her students called her) alongside other missionary school staff and the young girls they cared for. Most of the photos were taken during a summer holiday spent on the shores of Lake Balaton, central Europe’s largest freshwater lake, before the onset of war.
Along with the will and the photographs, the researchers found several other documents, including an extract of a report by the Polish bishop Laszlo Ravasz, a member of the Reformed Church who also helped to save Jews during World War II. Written in 1945—a year after Haining died at Auschwitz—Ravasz’s report states that church authorities had ordered Haining home no fewer than three times after war broke out. But Haining repeatedly refused, according to Ravasz, saying “I shall continue to do my duty…and stick to my post.”
In March 1944, Nazi troops entered Budapest. Haining stood her ground, even as she was forced to sew yellow Stars of David on the Jewish girls’ clothes on the orders of the Gestapo. Even while under surveillance, Haining went to a market at 5 a.m. to get food for the girls in her care; she also cut up her leather luggage to make soles for their shoes. But after she caught the cook’s son-in-law raiding the scarce food supply she put aside for her charges, he betrayed her to the Nazis.
Arrested on suspicion of espionage, Haining was charged with eight offenses, including (as detailed in a post on the Church of Scotland’s Facebook page) “working among the Jews,” “listening to news broadcasts on the BBC,” “visiting prisoners of war,” “working in politics” and “weeping when seeing the girls attend class wearing yellow stars.” She admitted to all of the charges, except the ones involving political activity, and in May 1944 was transported to Auschwitz, the same forced-labor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland where some of her pupils would be sent.
More than 1 million people died at Auschwitz between September 1941 and January 1945, when Soviet troops liberated the network of concentration camps there. The exact circumstances behind Haining’s death are unclear. Due to her British citizenship, the Nazis sent a death certificate to the Church of Scotland, stating that Haining died on July 17, 1944 from “cachexia [wasting of the body] following intestinal catarrh [excessive buildup of mucus or discharge].”
In 1997, after a 10-year investigation, Haining became the only Scottish man or woman named as “righteous among the nations,” a designation used by Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, to honor non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. The British government awarded her a Hero of the Holocaust medal in 2010. Among the memorials to Haining are two glass windows honoring her “service and sacrifice” at her former church in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, and a street in Budapest that is named for her.
“The previously unseen documents and photographs have, for me, evoked fresh feelings of awe about this already tremendously moving, inspiring and important story,” Reverend Susan Brown of the World Mission Council told the Guardian of the recent discovery. “To hear of Jane’s determination to continue to care for ‘her’ girls, even when she knew it put her own life at risk, is truly humbling.” Haining’s will, and the rest of the newly discovered material, will soon be handed over to the National Library of Scotland.