To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Writer at Large Neil Mackay recounts the remarkable and moving story of one of the nation’s most courageous daughters

IT’S strange to think that Scotland can produce a heroine like Jane Haining, and yet build not one statue to her.

Haining is just one of 22 Britons named by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations. It is a rare honour, handed down only to those who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi Holocaust.

Jane Haining didn’t just risk her life, she gave her life, and died in Auschwitz.

Haining, a Church of Scotland missionary, remained in Budapest during the war as the city fell to the Nazis. She ran a school and worked tirelessly to save the lives of Jewish children under her care. Finally, the Gestapo came for her and she perished in the gas chambers.

The world marks Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow. How fitting it would be if there was a statue to this remarkable woman, which would stand as testament to Scotland’s remembrance.

Here, in Scotland, there’s little to mark her life apart from a small memorial cairn in her home town, and a stained glass window in a Glasgow church she once attended.

The irony is, though, that Jane Haining, a woman of great modesty, would most likely have been thoroughly embarrassed at the thought of a statue being erected to her.


The roots of that humble modesty, her quiet but unyielding courage, her self-sacrifice, go right back to her birth. She was a farmer’s daughter, born into a devoutly Christian home near the village of Dunscore in Dumfriesshire in 1897.

Her mother died when she was five, leaving an indelible loss in her life. In a way, Jane, who would never have children herself, became mother to the Jewish girls of Budapest who she cared for throughout the war.

The young Jane excelled at school. But it was the church which gave her life meaning. In her recent biography, Jane Haining: A Life Of Love And Courage, Mary Miller says: “Jane was born into a part of the world, Dumfries and Galloway, with a long tradition of radical, independent thinking among people who saw themselves as answerable only to God.”

Miller adds: “So the priority of allegiance to the church over allegiance to the state was part of the ‘given’ with which Jane Haining grew up.” As an adult, Jane wouldn’t be the type of woman to bow to any command above the calling of her own conscience. This would define her life, and death.

In 1909, the young Jane was smart enough to win a bursary to Dumfries Academy. Girls from the countryside boarded at a hostel, and Jane was the youngest resident. She was a shy girl and it must have been intimidating.

Her biographer says the experience “came to inform the care and understanding which she was later to offer” to the Jewish children in Budapest. Jane was a gifted linguist who won plenty of prizes and became dux. One school prize came in the form of a book on botany. After her murder in Auschwitz, friends found the botany book among the few meagre possessions she left behind.

Although bright enough for university, Jane chose to attend Commercial College in Glasgow. She took lodgings in Pollokshields. It was an usually adventurous step for a girl of just 18.

With her business courses complete, she quickly secured a job with J & P Coats, the thread-making giant in Paisley. She rose through the ranks and became secretary to one of the company directors.

Despite her success, Jane was unfulfilled. She devoted more and more time to the church, and began teaching Sunday school. She was a natural at mothering children.

Jane became increasingly interested in the idea of missionary work. Ties were loosening at home. Her family was emotionally close, but physically they were drifting apart. Her father died in 1922, and her sister moved to Kent. In 1927, Jane attended a talk about the Church of Scotland’s missionary work among the Jewish community of eastern Europe. At the end of the lecture, Jane said to a friend: “I have found my life’s work.”

Jane began saving, and soon had enough money to hand in her notice and go back to college to study domestic science. There was a post going as matron in the Girls’ Home of the Scottish Jewish Mission School in Budapest and she was determined to get it.

In April 1932, she undertook a crash course at St Colm’s in Edinburgh, the church’s training school for missionaries. By June, she was in Budapest – a city that would become home for the remainder of her life.


The Scottish Mission School had been operating for decades and had a reputation for academic excellence. Biographer Miller explains the school’s unique role: “Both Jewish and Christian children were enrolled, with the intention of educating them together, so that they would build relationships and learn about each other.”

Although religiously mixed, most of the pupils were Jews and many of the boarders were poor and orphaned. One pupil, Katalin Packard, said the school “did not try to convert Jews. You could keep your own religion. There was a Rabbi for Jewish children”.

There were few luxuries but an abundance of love from staff. Former pupils made clear that Jane was more than just a kind figure in their lives –she was a surrogate mother who provided guidance, no-nonsense discipline, care and affection.

Many pupils came to love her – and Jane, who would never marry, loved them in return. The school – its staff and pupils – became a very real substitute family for her.

The early period in Budapest was almost idyllic for Jane. She was doing what she loved – ministering to children – and she was in one of the most glamorous capitals in Europe. She and other staff would take the children for summer holidays to Hungary’s Lake Balaton where they would swim and picnic.

But as we now know, these carefree days were a mirage for Jane and her charges as something dreadful was stirring at the heart of Europe. Anti-Semitism had been steadily growing in Hungary. By 1934, with Hitler dictator of Germany, the Scottish Mission in Budapest began staging lectures against anti-Semitism – putting the staff on an inevitable collision course with the forces of fascism.

As the far-right press in Hungary turned on the Mission, Jane’s reports back to the General Assembly in Scotland took on a darker, more pessimistic tone. “The outlook does not grow brighter,” she wrote to Edinburgh in 1934.

The following year the Rev George Knight – a man who exhibited exceptionally bravery himself during his time in Hungary – arrived from Scotland to take charge of the mission.

Under a Hungarian government aligned with Nazi Germany, more and more Jewish families scrambled to get their children into the Mission School, in the hope that being a pupil there might provide some safety. Jane allowed in as many as the school could take – and more. Ministers began carrying out quick baptisms of Jews into the Church of Scotland in order to provide some protection from persecution. Such plans were fruitless – to Nazis, Jews were a race not a religion.

In 1937, a divinity student called Bryce Nisbet arrived from Edinburgh. He was quickly sending information back to the Foreign Office, and reporting on Hungarian troop movements.

Anti-Jewish laws were passed in Hungary. The country also had its own version of the Nazi Party – the Arrow Cross, which was violently anti-Semitic and waiting in the wings.

Against this darkening political landscape, Jane focused on providing love and care to the schoolchildren. Refugee children fleeing Nazis in countries like Austria and Czechoslovakia were soon making their way to the mission’s door.

Jane’s simple kindness can be seen in one note which survives her. “We have one nice little mite who is an orphan and is coming to school for the first time. She seems to be a lonely wee soul and needs lots of love. We shall see what we can do to make life happier for her.”

By now, the Arrow Cross had the school in its sights. George Knight was dragged before an Arrow Cross kangaroo court, and later followed by secret police. Phones were tapped. Nevertheless, the school made it clear that “anyone who sympathises with xenophobic views cannot work here”.

The mission was working to get Jews out of Hungary to safe nations, helping them emigrate. One mother was so desperate for help for her children that she wept in Jane’s office and said she had been thinking of “adding some poison to their food and ending it all”.

Jane was shattered by stress, and come August 1939 she took a short holiday in England to recuperate. She was there when war broke out – and then she did the unthinkable. She returned to Budapest through a continent now at war. Hungary was still neutral and not yet part of the conflict.


By now, George Knight was also working for British intelligence. He told Jane he was joining the army as a chaplain and asked her to return to Scotland with him to safety. She refused. The Church of Scotland instructed Jane to return in May 1940. She stayed.

Jane once said: “If these children needed me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness.”

In December 1941, Britain declared war on Hungary, which had been contributing troops to help Hitler fight Russia. The neutral Swiss Legation in Hungary gave Jane a safe-conduct pass, which offered some sort of diplomatic protection – but not much.

“Within the walls of the mission, Jane tried at all costs to maintain a sanctuary for her children,” says Mary Miller. Despite being one of the few Britons left in the country, Jane chanced her arm and asked the Hungarian government if she could visit and send parcels to British PoWs. The authorities granted permission.

More and more Jews came to the mission for help. By 1943, Jane was ill. Her hair was now prematurely white. Come 1944, Hungary, as exhausted as Jane, signed an armistice with Russia. As a result, Germany invaded. Budapest was now under the control of the Nazis and the Arrow Cross. The Final Solution had arrived.

Children at the Mission School had to sew Yellow Stars on to their clothes. Jane cried as she helped the children stitch. Each morning at five, wracked with illness, she would drag herself through the city desperately trying to barter for food for the children. Jewish families were soon hidden in the mission’s cellars.

Anti-Jewish laws ordered that Jews could not have “Aryans” working for them. So the mission dismissed its non-Jewish housekeeper with six months’ pay. Jane later had a run-in with the housekeeper’s Arrow Cross son. Feeling slighted, he denounced her to the Nazis. Two Gestapo agents came to arrest her, dismissing her Swiss safe conduct papers. One tossed her Bible aside with the words: “You won’t be needing this anymore.”

As she was led away, Jane told her girls: “Don’t worry, I’ll be back by lunch.”

Jane was charged with “working amongst the Jews”, “weeping when seeing girls wear Yellow Stars”, dismissing her Aryan housekeeper, listening to the BBC, having British visitors, being active in politics, visiting British PoWs, and sending parcels to PoWs. She told the Gestapo that each claim was true apart from the allegation that she had been politically active. None of her “crimes” had been illegal under Hungarian law until the arrival of the Nazis.


Jane was held for a time in Fo Utca Prison. Friends smuggled a ham into jail for her, and her last witnessed act was handing meat out to her fellow prisoners before she was sent to Auschwitz. She arrived there on May 15, 1944, after a three-day journey in a packed cattle car, with no food or water. Her concentration camp number was tattooed on her arm: 79467.

After Jane’s arrest, the mission staff began sending children to safe houses.

We have little knowledge of what happened to Jane in Auschwitz. After two months of starvation, brutality, fear, squalor and hard labour, it’s speculated that she was too ill to pass a morning inspection and as a result was sent to the gas chambers. Average life expectancy was just a few months for most prisoners, who were told when they arrived that the only escape was “through the chimney”.

Like many prisoners, Jane was instructed by the Nazis to write to friends and relatives, to keep up the lie that Auschwitz was simply a prison camp. The last words we have from Jane are in just such a letter dated July 15, 1944. It is to her friend and colleague Margit Prem. The letter closes: “Even here on the road to heaven, there are mountains.” She was murdered two days later on July 17. One of Jane’s pupils who survived, Eva Haller, said Jane “refused to leave Hungary and refused to leave her Jewish children, surely knowing that she wouldn’t survive”.

She went on: “The debt is enormous because without her I wouldn’t be standing here … She took away the pain … because there was this one human being who cared more about saving my life, than saving her own … Goodness wins in the long run.”

In 1946, as the fog of war cleared, the Scottish Mission in Budapest unveiled a memorial tablet dedicated to Jane. In June 1948, two stained-glass windows were erected in her honour at Queen’s Park Church where she had worshipped. On January 27, 1997 – 52 years to the day after the liberation of Auschwitz – Israel named her Righteous Among the Nations. Her name is inscribed on the wall of honour in Jerusalem’s Garden of the Righteous.

In 2005, a small memorial cairn, three feet tall, was erected at Dunscore Church, where there is also a heritage centre commemorating Jane. A Church of Scotland prize is also named after her. In 2010, Budapest renamed part of the Danube embankment after her. That same year, the British Government named her Hero of the Holocaust. In 2017, Hungary honoured her again with an exhibition at the National Holocaust Memorial Centre.

Perhaps, one day, Scotland will build a statue to this extraordinary woman – and give one of the nation’s greatest daughters the honour she so rightly deserves. As her biographer Miller says: “At a time when armies were defeated, politicians capitulated and churches all over Europe made their accommodations with the Nazis, Jane Haining did not.”