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1932, I WAS BORN A JEW...

My name is Janine, although my parents had a special nickname for me, Niunia. You see, we were Polish and lived in a town called Lvov. That sounds a little like the English word 'love', doesn't it? Well, I have to tell you, there was very little love shown towards our family when I was a child.

That's because our family was Jewish. And although the Jews had been tremendously respected in the region for their contributions to its status as a centre of intellectual, cultural and academic excellence, the 1930s would see a period of big change in our fortunes.

Of course, my parents tried to protect my little brother Arturo and me, and did everything they could to make our childhood as happy and as normal as possible. My father Alfred was an accountant who set up home with my mother, Malka, on Ashkenazi Street. I still remember sitting with my dad in synagogue as well as taking summer family holidays in the Polish countryside. If I close my eyes, I still smile at the memories of those days. Little did we know then how precious they would become.

Because, in 1939, our lives were shattered, along with the lives of millions of others across Europe. World War 2 broke out almost on our doorstep. Our home town soon ceased to exist as part of Poland. First, we were occupied by the Soviet Red Army. This brought hardship and shortage. Imagine - suddenly all grain, corn, wheat flour, meat, sugar, butter, salt, tobacco, even matches, vanished, almost overnight. The price of potatoes rose by 800 per cent. At the same time, like many other local citizens, thousands of Jews became the target of Soviet state terror. Some were even murdered. Others were sent to Siberia.

But worse was to follow.

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On June 30th 1941, Germany broke its infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Russians and overran Lvov. For us Jews, it was like a return to the darkest times of our East European history. Once again, the dreaded word 'Pogrom' entered our vocabulary, something we never thought possible in our civilised, cultured society.


Encouraged by the hateful propaganda of the Nazis, and carried out by the SS and the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, violent raids began. My father was a target. I remember him evading capture by jumping from the second floor balcony of our home to the first floor balcony, and hiding from the terrifying black uniforms of the Gestapo - the German Secret State Police.

“Jump, Daddy, jump, try to get away...”

Can you imagine what it was like to be in our situation? For my father, having to run away when he wanted to look after his young family? For my mother, in her 20s, coping with the flight of her husband, yet trying to give her two young children at least a semblance of normality.

But life would never be normal again.

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“We lived in a hole under the wardrobe...”

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In an effort to hide us from the Nazis, my parents dug a hole under a wardrobe with just enough space for me, Arturo and my mother. Yet, one day in 1941, the Gestapo didn't bother with the familiar knock at our front door - they simply smashed it down with brute force. They found my father and grandmother hiding in the loft and took them away.

They shot my father. Dead. He was still just a young man with a future and family ahead of him that he would never live to see.

By the end of the year, the Lvov Ghetto was ready. My remaining family, along with all the surviving Jews of the area were forced to live within its boundaries, situated in the most run-down part of the city.

120,000 Jews were moved into one small section of Lvov, whilst the local Ukrainian and Polish residents were relocated outside the Ghetto walls.

The overcrowding was terrible. Sanitation was virtually non-existent. And with food rations at a tenth of the Germans, everyone was constantly starving. It was only a matter of time before typhus was rife and within a short time, my mother fell ill with it. Despite my uncle hiding her in a cellar and desperately trying to help her recover, my mother was simply too weak to survive. After visiting her one day, I left, never to see her alive again. She was just 29.

You might expect me to say that I broke down and cried at the tragedy of becoming an orphan before my tenth birthday. But I didn't. In reality, I was relieved my mother had gone and I could now just fend for myself and my brother. That's the kind of emotional numbness we succumbed to. That's what the Nazis did to us, even us children. Death had simply ceased to be extraordinary, with other family members either dying from disease or being transported to Belzec extermination camp. Death became commonplace. That's something the young people I speak to today find so difficult to comprehend.

Our family home had been located in a nice section of Lvov, right in the centre of town. Suddenly, without notice, we were evicted and moved to lodgings on the edge of town. Unbeknown to us, this was to be a temporary arrangement whilst a ghetto was created. Our family were allowed to take only one suitcase of belongings between all of us. Worse still, two other families were squeeze into the same living space. Living conditions were tough, stressful and made worse by the constant raids by the Germans.

“He was seven. Seven years old. Think about that...”

Most of us have a favourite aunt or uncle. Someone who isn't a parent, yet who cares deeply for us. Someone we trust and confide in. Someone with whom we share a special and unbreakable bond. Well, even in the Ghetto, amidst unspeakable horrors, such relationships still existed. For me, that special person was my wonderful Aunt Rouja. Somehow (don't ask me how) she managed to engineer our escape from the Ghetto. Meanwhile, my Uncle Selig - Rouja's brother - had found a Polish farmer willing to hide us in the countryside. Perhaps this was to be the start of better things...?

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Sadly not. For a start, the farmer's unwanted advances and harassment forced Aunt Rouja to run away from the farm. In anger, he then ordered my brother and me to leave his farm. Fortunately, my uncle managed to find another farmer who agreed to offer us refuge. But he had a daughter of 20, who subsequently betrayed us to the SS.

I truly thought this was the end. With my life in the hands of an SS officer, I was certain he was going to kill me. But, for some reason, he decided not to. I'll never know why. Was it sudden kindness? Perhaps, but if so, it was short-lived. Because cruelly, in cold blood, he and his comrades shot my little brother. My Arturo. Wounded by an SS bullet. Then, buried alive by the same SS men. Murdered. Seven years old.

 
 


“A young man called Edek, a Polish Catholic”

After the Nazis killed my brother, I was completely alone. So, still a small child, I roamed the countryside, often finding work as a shepherdess. Of course, it was precarious to be a young Jew, always wary that someone - anyone - might turn from offering assistance or comfort to suddenly informing the local Nazis. And, to be honest, who could blame them? To be caught harbouring or helping Jews was a crime punishable by death. Which makes the next episode in my adventure all the more remarkable.

Let me tell you something about my Aunt Rouja. Before the war, she'd been involved in something of a scandal. Of course, these days, it would be nothing, but back then... You see, at 17, Rouja had a boyfriend, a much older man called Rudek. And Rudek's best friend was a member of the Polish Resistance. Rouja had given me his name and told me that, if I was ever in a state of absolute desperation, to go to him.

His name... was Edek.

In his daytime job, Edek was employed to look after the Persankowka estate on the outskirts of Lvov. There was a cattle farm, orchards and vegetable gardens and was the property of two Polish men who were forced to leave at the start of the German occupation. Meanwhile, the nuns of the local convent took over management of the estate. It was here that Edek — and his brother Kazik — worked for them as night watchmen.

Somehow, I had managed to keep his address safe with me and I managed to find him. To this day, I maintain Edek was a hero.

 
 
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He hid me, Aunt Rouja, Uncle Selig and 11 other Jews on the estate. At first we stayed in some horse stables but remaining above ground was too risky. So, Edek helped us dig an underground bunker, where we lived in very poor and cramped conditions. I remember, there was an electric bulb and a bucket, but very little food, just bread and onions. I stayed in that hole for nearly a year, without leaving once. No fresh air, no daylight.

Finally, Aunt Rouja felt that the only way to preserve my health was to get me out. Remember, I was still only 11. So, by changing my name, my aunt managed to obtain some false papers for me. I had to learn every detail of my new identity - as a young Catholic girl whose parents had been killed. And although I looked incredibly ill, I managed to find my way to Krakow, another city in Poland, where I was admitted to a convent.

Despite the hardships I endured, I was one of the few lucky ones. However for me, luck played only a small part in my survival. More than anything, I owe the fact that I managed to stay alive to the heroism of the young man who saved me and thirteen other Jews: Edek. Don't forget, if he had been caught hiding us, he would have been executed, so his bravery is almost unimaginable.

If only I knew his last name. Because Edek is a common name in Poland, much like Edward in English. And although I have tried over the years to find him, my search has proved fruitless.

Yet now, with the launch of this new film, we're going to try again.

To protect my new identity, I learned to sing Christian hymns and recite Christian prayers. From there I was moved, along with three other girls, to live with a priest, before finally going to live with an elderly couple. There, I worked as a maid until Krakow was liberated in early 1945, when I was 13.

 
 

 
 
 
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Following her traumatic early life in Poland and Ukraine, Janine Webber settled in Paris, where she was educated, before finally making her home in England. She lives in London today, surrounded by her family. Janine is a committed ambassador for the National Holocaust Centre & Museum, tirelessly travelling the length and breadth of the UK to take her message of Tolerance and Understanding to young people of all backgrounds. Always keen to find new ways to tell the story of her past in the Holocaust and to make the history of that period relevant to younger generations, Janine was delighted to contribute to the making of 'Edek', collaborating with Hip Hop artist Kapoo in an entirely new form of visual and aural storytelling commissioned by the Arts team at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum.