WHEN HIS WIFE COMMITTED SUICIDE, PHILIP HOLMES DECIDED TO START A CHARITY IN HER MEMORY. NOW THE ESTHER BENJAMINS TRUST HELPS CHILDREN IN ONE OF THE WORLD’S POOREST COUNTRIES.
ANNE SEBBA MET HIM.
On monday, January 4, 1999, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Holmes came home for lunch to discover his beautiful wife dead, hanging in the hallway.
Yet one week later at her funeral, searching for words to express his grief, Holmes found himself promising to rekindle her light. “I wanted to explain to her friends and family why this had happened. They just couldn’t understand how such a bright, beautiful and apparently strong woman as Esther had come to this. Part of my duty was not just to explain but to offer them something.”
At the tiny Jewish cemetery in Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, his wife’s country of birth, Holmes had stood silently by the graveside. “I’ve always been in control,” says Holmes. “Within the first week I knew I would set up some sort of charity to commemorate Esther and that the charity would somehow help children.”
In her brief suicide note Esther, a judge who loved children and had desperately wanted her own, said that her childless life was unbearable. Holmes, a Christian, says: “I knew how she felt about children, that she would fight vigorously for the underdog. I had to do something with that knowledge.”
After the funeral, as the small group of 20 or so repaired to a cafe, he gave an impromptu speech. “I read a passage from Esther’s prayer book that represents a statement of faith and praise even at the darkest of times.
“At 2am that night I had a clear feeling of the bedclothes being tucked around me, like someone saying ‘well done’. I’d done my duty and held myself together as she’d have expected me to do.”
“Duty” is a word constantly at the forefront of Holmes’s thoughts. Perhaps not surprisingly for a man who, born in Northern Ireland, spent 17 years in the British Army as a dentist serving with the Royal Army Dental Corps. His reaction to Esther’s suicide was “a terrible sadness that someone who’d lived such a tremendous life should end up dying in some obscure army quarters in such a violent manner.
“But then I went into army mode of operation and realised I must protect myself by minimising my visual exposure to the horrific sight. I walked into the kitchen, shut the door to call the police, and never looked at her again.”
That way he could remember her as the vibrant woman she had been in life. Within days, he knew it was time to leave the Army. By September 1999 the charity that would bear her name -the Esther Benjamins Trust -was established to help deprived and marginalised children in Nepal -a country he had never visited.
Louise Geralda Benjamins -Esther was the name she adopted after she had rediscovered her Jewish roots -was born into an assimilated Jewish family in the Netherlands where discussion of the Holocaust was, according to Philip, taboo. “I know that the Germans came looking for Esther’s father, who survived only because her mother stood on a trap door below which he was hiding and insisted he was not there.”
As an enthusiastic Zionist, Esther had spent time in her youth living in Israel but left in disillusionment with politics there. Instead, she poured her desire for justice into social work in the Netherlands, helping clients who had been in concentration camps or who had been hidden during the Second World War in gentile families and had repressed memories. She was also studying part-time for a degree in law and writing a dissertation entitled: “Things That Do Not Pass Away: Anti-Semitism, Racism, Discrimination and Persecution.”
Philip, then a 25-year-old captain, and Esther, a 30 year-old social worker, met in 1985 when they shared a T-bar on a Tyrolean skiing holiday. They were married three years later and Esther, who had just passed a series of legal exams with distinction, came to live in army quarters in Catterick. Almost immediately she was offered an important job in the Netherlands working in the provincial administrator’s office, assessing appeals for a higher court. After much soul searching, she accepted. It was the start of an exhausting life commuting. She would leave England on a Monday, work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and fly home on Thursday night. She did all the shopping and domestic arrangements before Shabbat on Friday as she kept a kosher household. Philip believes this punishing routine resulted in professional burnout and psychiatric problems leading ultimately to her tragic death.
“Esther was striking looking, slim and elegant with high energy levels, a real head-turner,” recalls Philip. But however important her work, she always wanted to be a mother. “People misread our situation, seeing her as a career girl who had chosen not to have a family. Yet it was always our intention to have children and for Esther this was a deeply ingrained need.”
Four years into the marriage Esther underwent fertility treatment in the Netherlands. She stopped treatment aged 37 in 1992. But she did not stop hoping. “She wanted not just a child but a big family. She’d make trips to supermarkets and see other mothers with loads of children trailing after them and became angry and upset at this personal injustice. She also saw it partly in post-Holocaust terms as redressing the balance, because of all the Jewish children killed. She’d have been a mother to dream of but she couldn’t bear seeing her dream thwarted.”
Throughout 1998 both Philip and Esther were exhausted. Living near Aldershot, Philip completed his masters degree in dentistry in London while Esther went through the demanding selection process in the Netherlands which appointed her a judge -a position she never took up.
Her GP, believing her to be depressed, prescribed Seroxat, a controversial drug which Philip now believes aggravated her condition. “She was a woman with incredible resilience and toughness. Yet suddenly she said, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m sorry you’ve married a depressive.’ She was, by the end, I now see, unable to take a decision to stop herself, to save her life. Sadness about her childlessness was still there and underlying it all was her sense of terrible injustice about the Holocaust. But I think these feelings were drug-fuelled.”
By the end of the year Philip hoped the worst was over. When he kissed Esther goodbye on the morning of January 4 he made her promise to call him if she felt low as he was only ten minutes away. She never did. Holmes understands how easy it would be to feel anger at the violent nature of her death. “I made a conscious decision to respond positively to what had happened. I was determined to harness my emotions and perhaps that’s where my army side came in, because I was so aware of what I had to do.”
After her death, Philip undertook an army language course in Nepali. At the time, the British headquarters of the Brigade of Gurkhas was in Church Crookham, Hampshire, where Esther and Philip lived, so they had friends among the Nepali women and children in their neighbourhood. In addition, the couple were sponsoring a child in Nepal through the charity Actionaid. But it was Philip’s friendship with a former Gurkha officer, Khem Thapa, which persuaded him that Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, could benefit from the charity he wanted to set up. The Esther Benjamins Trust now has four buildings and looks after 70 street children, jail children (whose parents are in jail) or circus children (trafficked illegally into India).
Next month Philip and his new wife Beverley -a television producer he met while making a programme about the trust -are moving out to live in Nepal. They have rented a house in Bhairahawa, seven hours’ drive southwest of Kathmandu, which is where the refuges are. Bhairahawa is one of the main crossing points into India and has been important in the fight to retrieve stolen children.
Philip says: “It is a bustling town during the day but dead at night, so we’ll be taking quite a few novels with us. Still, the compensation of being right at the heart of the work far outweighs any personal inconvenience.”