It’s 1942 and Janine Webber is looking straight into the eyes of the SS officer who is about to shoot her. She is nine years old, but age is irrelevant when you’re living in Nazi-occupied Poland and you’re Jewish. Webber has been caught outside the ghetto, betrayed by the daughter of a Polish family – the very people her uncle paid to hide her and her younger brother Tunio.
But instead of shooting her, the officer orders her to run away. She still wonders why he let her escape. ‘Maybe he had a daughter or sister like me,’ she says. ‘Or maybe he felt I was a sweet girl and harmless.’
The officer turns and shoots her brother, wounding him, then buries him alive. Tunio is just seven years old. Eight decades later, seated in a cosy armchair in her peaceful North London home, you would never guess at the brutality of Webber’s early life.
This Jewish grandmother, a self-confessed tough cookie, loves socialising and celebrated her 90th birthday last year with not one but two parties. She regularly goes to the opera, walks for an hour and a half a day and regrets how the pandemic put a stop to her workouts at the gym.
Jewish grandmother Janine Webber, a self-confessed tough cookie, loves socialising and celebrated her 90th birthday last year with not one but two parties
Webber was born in July 1932 in the Polish city of Lvov, now Lviv in western Ukraine. Before the war, it was a thriving centre, filled with theatres, universities and an opera house.
Polish Catholics, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians and Jews lived side by side, with the Jews respected for their contribution to the region’s status as a centre for intellectual, cultural and academic excellence. ‘There were nearly 150,000 Jews living in Lvov,’ Webber says. ‘That sounds a little like the word ‘love’, doesn’t it? Well, I must tell you, there was very little love shown towards our family.’
Webber’s family lived in a second-floor flat in the centre of town and spent the holidays in a village nearby. She still has a photo taken one summer of her mother Lipka in her bathing costume, lounging on the grass (see opposite). Her parents ran a local grocery store while her grandmother looked after her and her brother. Every Saturday, her father Alfred took her to the orthodox synagogue where the men sat on one side and the women on the other.
‘But I was allowed to sit with my father,’ she says. ‘All the men made a fuss of me and I loved it.’ Then in 1941 the Nazis invaded her city and her family were plunged into an apocalyptic nightmare. Within days, the German secret police and death squads began targeting Jewish men, dragging them out of their homes and on to the streets to shoot them.
Janine, next to Tunio, far right, in a treasured family photo of her mother relaxing on holiday
Webber remembers her father running into their flat, shouting, ‘The Germans are after me!’ With the Gestapo hammering at the door, he leapt off their second-floor balcony, breaking his leg but managing to escape.
Next time he would not be so lucky. The Germans began seizing all Jewish property and since the ghetto was still being established, Webber’s family was forcibly moved into a small room in a shared house.
The Gestapo’s raids were constant, so her parents created a tiny hiding space under the floorboards beneath a wardrobe. ‘There was only room for me, my mother and Tunio,’ she says.
The next raid came without warning. The Gestapo found her father and grandmother hiding in the loft. Webber still remembers her grandmother’s screams as they were both dragged away to be shot.
As the war intensified, 120,000 Jews were sent to the newly created ghetto, crammed together with scant food and no sanitation.
Typhus was rife and dead bodies littered the streets. Webber recalls seeing soldiers piling up bodies into carts. ‘They threw sick people on top of the corpses, even if they were still alive.’
When her mother got typhus, her uncle Selig hid her in the basement and tried to nurse her to recovery. Webber crept downstairs to see her. ‘I couldn’t understand why she didn’t look at me or talk to me. She was always so affectionate.’
Selig explained to her later that her mother was already dead. She was 29. Amid this deprivation, Selig scraped together enough money to pay for Polish farmers to give Webber a home. But even this proved to be unsafe as she was put in a bed with the farmer’s 15-year-old son, who tried to have sex with her. She managed to fend him off, but her punishment was to be locked alone in a room for several months with only a bed and a bucket.
Tunio, aged 18 months, 1935. A farmer’s daughter betrayed them to a Nazi officer – who allowed Webber to escape, but who shot and wounded Tunio then buried him alive
‘After a few days, I asked for a blanket because I was cold. They gave me an old coat infested with lice,’ she says. ‘I kept killing the lice but having something to do saved my mind because I was starting to imagine I saw animals in the walls.’
Webber can only guess at why the farmers finally let her go – maybe they had enough of feeding her or thought it was too dangerous to shelter a Jewish child. She found her way back to the ghetto, where Selig once again got the money to pay for another Polish farming family to give her and also Tunio shelter.
But it was here that the farmer’s daughter betrayed them to the Nazi officer – who allowed Webber to escape, but who shot and wounded Tunio then buried him alive.
Does she, I wonder, believe some people are inherently evil? ‘I don’t believe people are born evil,’ she says. ‘I believe people can be brainwashed.’ She retains her belief in the goodness of humanity because of the courage of a Polish Catholic teenager named Edek, who risked his life to save hers.
After Webber escaped from the farm, she found herself orphaned and alone. All she had in her possession were her treasured photographs and the address of Edek, a member of the Polish Resistance.
He was a friend of her mother’s sister, Aunt Rouja, and was employed as a night watchman for the Persenkowka convent on the outskirts of Lvov. It was in the grounds of the convent that Edek managed to build an underground bunker to hide Webber, Rouja, Selig and 11 other Jews.
‘It was very small,’ she explains. ‘We could stand up but not walk around. There was a naked bulb in the ceiling and six planks to sleep on, so we had to take it in turns to lie down. There was no daylight, no air. It was very hot. I only wore underwear.’ She lived in that underground hole for almost a year.
In 1943, as Webber’s health began to deteriorate, Rouja managed to smuggle her out of the bunker by obtaining false papers for her. Webber had to assume a new identity, that of a dead Catholic girl named Janina Kopielska, whose parents had been killed, and learn every detail about her life.
She found shelter in another convent, in Krakow, where she mouthed the words to the prayers so no one would realise she wasn’t Catholic. Her leg muscles were so weak from living underground that the Mother Superior told her she’d never walk properly again.
Janine, left, aged four, with her mother and Tunio, 1936. The Gestapo’s raids on their flat were constant, so her parents created a tiny hiding space under the floorboards beneath a wardrobe. ‘There was only room for me, my mother and Tunio,’ she says
But Webber proved her wrong – and her daily walks are a testament to her indomitable spirit. All of those in the bunker survived the war, although Webber regrets that she never saw Edek again to thank him. ‘If he’d been caught hiding us, he would have been executed,’ she says. ‘So, his bravery is almost unimaginable.’
After the liberation, she settled in Paris and married her first husband Norman Galloway and had twin sons, Stephen and Mark. Later she moved to London, marrying her second husband, engineer Edward Webber, but remains a committed Francophile and used to work as a lecturer in French.
She is close to all her children, stepchildren and grandchildren, but for 50 years, Webber never spoke about what she endured, even to her own family. ‘It was too painful.’ The trauma gave her recurrent nightmares of Nazi officers in shiny black boots. She was terrified of anyone finding out where she lived, scared to open her front door to strangers.
As part of her recovery, her psychotherapist suggested she start opening up about her ordeal. Once she began telling her story, the nightmares stopped. Now her diary is packed with talks to schools, churches and other organisations. ‘I also give more interviews Davi online,’ she says.
‘Often people respond with emails and that makes me really, really happy.’ She regularly travels to Nottinghamshire to address visitors at the National Holocaust Centre & Museum. Its director Marc Cave is full of admiration for her: ‘I always get a pang of jealousy when someone says they’re seeing Janine,’ he writes to me in an email.
‘Every time she speaks about her baby brother, I think she’s going to crack. But Janine is prepared to pay the price of personal trauma by reliving it every time she talks in the hope of helping other people. That’s the equation – ‘I suffer, but I’m prepared to suffer if it inspires you to be a better human being.’
New government figures show that antisemitic hate incidents are at a record high and so there is an increasing urgency to find new ways to make survivors’ stories resonate.
Webber recently collaborated with Cave and hip-hop artist Kapoo to create Edek, an award-winning short film described as ‘a history lesson for the YouTube generation’. When she appeared on Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ series, she had 2,000 questions in an hour, placing her above Jamie Oliver and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Reddit’s rankings.
Webber recently collaborated with Cave and hip-hop artist Kapoo (pictured) to create Edek, an award-winning short film described as ‘a history lesson for the YouTube generation’
The National Holocaust Centre & Museum is determined that Webber’s story will live on even after she has gone, which is why it invited her to be part of The Forever Project. For this initiative she was filmed answering 1,500 crowd-sourced questions about the Holocaust.
Using her responses, voice recognition and artificial intelligence, they have created a conversational experience in which audiences can have a virtual Q&A session with her archived replies. It’s the empathy of interaction that is important, believes Cave. ‘With the Holocaust,’ he says, ‘the single most powerful educational tool is having a chat with a survivor.’
Thanks to The Forever Project, people now and far into the future will be able to converse with a virtual re-creation of Webber. She remains firm in her belief that her story has the power to help shape the future.
‘I know a lot of survivors wonder if it is worth doing all this, but I really think it is,’ she says. ‘Even if only one person hears me and alters their view then it’s worth it. I always say to young people, ‘You are our future. You will stop people being prejudiced. You will stand up to persecution. You must.’
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask her what three words best sum up her approach to life. She pauses to consider, and I instantly regret asking such a reductive question. How can she possibly condense 90 years into three words? Her answer, of course, is the perfect summation of her irrepressible passion for life – three words delivered with fierce clarity: ‘Joie de vivre.’