Book Review: Jane Haining, A Life of Love and Courage

Jane Haining, A Life of Love and Courage

Birlinn, 2019

Scottish state primary schools in the 1970s were not the melting pots of diversity they are now.  They largely reflected the Presbyterian assumptions that had existed since John Knox established the principle of ‘a school in every parish’ and preserved a sense of cultural and ‘religious’ priority.  That included six-year-olds being encouraged to venerate David Livingstone and Mary Slessor. They were selfless, well educated, of humble background; brave, God fearing, and, consistent with all of these, spawned and shaped by the Church of Scotland. They were our people.

My Primary 1 and 2 teacher was a big fan.  She was a church-choir, old-school matriarch.  Her latent sarcasm was well suppressed, but one thing was guaranteed to unleash it: irreverence for anything she held dear.  This included the virtues associated with Church of Scotland missionaries as listed; the Queen; the poems of Robert Burns; the Lord’s Prayer; self-effacing, conscientious industry; clean hands; good diction; nicely covered jotters; and a familiarity with the terms ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  I was well mannered, clean, nicely turned out, and fond of a good poem.  My jotters were pristine because my uncle was a butcher.  (We had access to stacks of the shiny brown paper used to wrap square slice.)  I was quietly relaxed about the ascendancy this conferred on me and equally complacent about the verbal ridicule inflicted on some of my peers.  It was much later before I wondered whether there was a contradiction in hearing the stories of Livingstone and Slessor told without any reference to love; or an irony in hearing an adult who professed to admire them humiliating children.  Like most of us she was complex.

Two things are especially welcome in Mary Miller’s biography of Jane Haining.  It singles out love as the partner of courage in this exceptional life.  And it emphasises the rightful place of an ordinary woman among the great and the good of Scottish missionary examples.  I never heard of Jane Haining at school.  That omission only began to be widely corrected with Sally Magnusson’s 2014 BBC documentary.  By then a corner of the St Mungo Museum in Glasgow had been devoted to Jane Haining, but you could easily wander past it.  It is appropriate then that in this biography Mary Miller tells her extraordinary story in the kind of accessible, unpretentious prose that is a reflection of its subject.

Jane Haining was born to a farming family in rural Dumfriesshire in 1867.  Her upbringing was characterised by hard work, education, religious observance and the understated yet confident belief in the uniquely saving power of Christian faith.  A feature of Scottish Presbyterianism in its various schismatic forms (Jane grew up in the United Free Church) had always been a perceived affinity with the Jewish people, a consequence of a particular reading of Old Testament theology.  That perception shared with Zionism a belief that the Jewish people would reclaim Palestine as their homeland, but it parted company with Judaism in its own belief that that reclamation would also see the Jews convert to Christianity as the fulfilment of the Messianic vision.

In the Scotsman‘s review of this book the reviewer makes the claim that this partiality to the Old Testament made it ‘difficult’ for anyone raised in the Church of Scotland to be anti-Semitic.  As one so raised I beg to differ, and it is an important point to distinguish because Jane Haining’s apparent lack of such prejudice may be no small deal.  A professed admiration in no way indicates a profound understanding.  Nor does a perceived affinity indicate equality of regard.  The Church of Scotland missionaries who left Scotland to convert the Jews of Europe, like those who left to convert the tribes of Africa, did so out of an absolute conviction that their ‘way’ was better.  Whether it was remains a subject for discussion, as does the question of whether condescension may be regarded as racism.  What is not in doubt is that Jane Haining found her vocation through a talk given by a minister who convened a committee of the Church of Scotland dedicated to the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity.  She too was probably complex.

Having turned that sense of vocation into training as a deaconess with domestic science skills, Jane arrived at a girls’ school in Budapest in 1932.  One of her most admirable qualities was an ambiguity around her true motivation.  A theological desire to convince and convert appears to have taken second place to a more earthy calling.  Mary Miller explicitly says that the principal attraction for Jane was to the work of the school, to its status as a boarding ‘home’ for its girls, to the vocation of caring more than to the object of conversion.  She quotes from an early letter home ‘…I approached not from the Missionary side but from the Girl’s Home side.’ (p.31)

This practical, simple desire to meet human needs was, according to Mary Miller, a key feature in both the impact she had upon the children she cared for, and her faithfulness to the end she shared with them.  Following her arrest in the Spring of 1944 by the Gestapo for, amongst other infringements, being distressed at having to sew the Star of David onto the children’s clothes, she is described by the author in these terms:

‘So sudden and shocking was the utter change in her circumstances that it must have been hard for her to believe it was happening.  Her thoughts surely raced all over the place, worrying about the children’s lunch, their tea, how the most vulnerable ones would be coping with her sudden disappearance, all the domestic details she had not had time to tell anyone, and more’. (p.137)

The ‘and more’ leaves a chill, for it must have included tortured anxiety about what lay ahead.  That question was resolved when, in mid May 1944, she was put on a train to Auschwitz where she was murdered, probably around mid-July, in a gas chamber.  Twice, as the Nazi nightmare deepened, she had been given the opportunity to return to Scotland and safety.  She chose to stay with the children, many of whom later credited her with their own survival.  Her insistence on clearing your plate meant that one girl at least had acquired the self-discipline to force down enough of the revolting calories provided in the camp to ensure her life.  Jane Haining, an ordinary woman who cried in fear, who preferred feeding children and keeping them clean to worrying about their religious status, who probably in the end just loved them too much to be able to leave them, died the ultimate Christlike death: one that gives up itself out of love for the other.

It has taken quite a long time for the story of Jane Haining to be told clearly and well.  Mary Miller has made a huge contribution to that worthy cause in this moving biography.  Jane emerges as a practical, kind, no-nonsense yet humorous, fun -loving woman.  The state of Israel has named her among the Righteous of the Nations, and she is honoured in the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem by the Jewish people as one who sacrificed herself, contrary to any distorted idea of their salvation, for the very lives of their children.  It’s an honour her native country, in its aspiration to greater inclusivity, diversity and equality should reflect; and Mary Miller should be thanked for giving it voice.

Lynn Jolly


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.