A TEACHER has been appointed to encourage Scottish schools to understand more about the Holocaust by teaching the story of a Scot who died in Auschwitz, after refusing to abandon Jewish girls in her care.
William McGair has been hired by the Jane Haining Project, which was formed by a cohort of Christian and Jewish people who believe that her story is very relevant today in light of growing levels of antisemitism, racism, and intolerance.
Education resources about the courageous Church of Scotland school matron, who died in the extermination camp in Nazi occupied Poland in July 1944, have now been developed. Teachers at Dumfries Academy, Miss Haining’s old school, and Woodfarm High School in Thornliebank near Glasgow have agreed to run a pilot scheme between April and June this year.
Speaking on Holocaust Memorial Day, the Rev Ian Alexander, a member of the project committee, said: “Jane Haining showed tremendous courage in the face of intolerable evil and her heart-breaking and inspirational story is as important today as ever.
“It is fitting that the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is ‘ordinary people’ and we are delighted that William has agreed to take this important work forward in schools as we seek to ensure that her memory is kept alive for generations to come.”
Jane Haining was born in the village of Dunscore in Dumfries and Galloway in 1897 and attended Dumfries Academy where she was dux. Her name is on a prize giving board and there is a memorial to her on site. The outside of the school’s Minerva building is still the same as it was in her day.
A teacher of History and Sociology by trade, Mr McGair was the faculty head of social subjects at Dumfries Academy until 2016 and first started teaching Jane Haining’s story in the 1980s. He said he is “excited” about his new role and the prospect of ensuring her life and legacy is shared more widely in schools across Scotland.
He added that although her story is rooted in the Holocaust, he hopes it will lead to discussions about the cause and impact of other genocides in countries such as Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda.
McGair said: “The story of Jane Haining is very moving and emotional and has always resonated strongly with pupils at Dumfries Academy given she was once a pupil there. It is one about faith and sacrifice, thinking of others and putting them first before themselves. She was an ordinary person who found herself in extraordinary circumstances and her story helps bring the Holocaust to life in a relatable and meaningful way as it puts a face and name to one of the millions of people murdered by the Nazis.
“I am excited about my new role with the Jane Haining Project and the opportunities it could provide and teachers at the schools where we are running the pilot seem equally enthusiastic. We will see what the pupil and teacher feedback on the learning materials is like, what worked well and what didn’t and so forth. I plan to observe the lessons and produce a report for the project’s committee which will then plan the next steps in terms of a broader roll out.”
Mr McGair has taken on a wider education role in Dumfries and Galloway and is teaching Advanced Higher History online and is still largely based at Dumfries Academy.
Some schools already teach the story of Jane Haining, including Braes High School in Polmont near Falkirk. Footage of a play about her arrest performed by a group of pupils is part of an exhibition about her life at Dunscore Parish Church.
Haining was the matron at the Scottish Mission School in Budapest, Hungary and rejected calls from the Church of Scotland to return home after the Second World War broke out in 1939 even though she knew her life was in danger. She was determined to stay in her post and famously said “If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?”
The farmer’s daughter started working at the Scottish Mission School in 1932. It had around 400 day and boarder pupils aged from 6-16 years old, a mixture of Jews and Christians. She managed to help keep the children, many of whom had been abandoned by their families, safe until she was betrayed by the cook’s son-in-law, a future SS soldier, whom she caught stealing scarce food meant for the girls. She was arrested by ‘German officers’ in April 1944 and former pupil Agnes Rostas, who witnessed the incident, revealed that her haunting last words to sobbing children were “Don’t worry, I’ll be back by lunch”.
She was charged with eight offences and jailed in Budapest for a spell then taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau by rail in a cattle wagon along with scores of others on the 14th of May, 1944.
The 47-year-old, who suffered from poor health, was given the number 79467 and likely forced into slave labour with women said to have worked in mines for 14 hours a day with a food allowance of two clear bowls of soup. Up to 300 women are said to have slept in a single barrack at the notorious camp.
Jane Haining died on the 17th of July 1944 with the Germans stating that she was admitted to hospital and succumbed to cachexia following intestinal catarrh but there are doubts to the validity of this ‘official’ claim.
Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th of January each year. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1.1 million people were murdered, 90 per cent of them Jewish, on this day in 1945.
* On 27 January, 1997 Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, recognised Jane Haining as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. See her memorial on the Yad Vashem website here.
* Source: Church of Scotland