Peele pupils hear of Holocaust horror from survivor
Holocaust survivor Janine Webber visited Peele Community College in Long Sutton on Tuesday to speak to Year 10 pupils about her experiences in the Second World War.
If you were to meet Janine Webber in the street, it would be easy to think she has led a privileged life - a fit and chatty Jewish lady, whose looks belie her 85 years.
Educated in Paris, she came to London to improve her English in 1956 - she met and married an Englishman, had two sons and has lived in leafy north London for more than 60 years.
It all sounds pretty idyllic - some may even envy her apparently charmed life - but the 14 years before her move to France, then dealing with the emotional consequences of that time, reveal a rather different story.
Janine was born in Lwów in Poland (now L’viv, Ukraine) in 1932.
“We lived a modest lifestyle,” said Janine. “We lived in a tiny flat. My father was an accountant and then he and my mother had a shop, a grocer’s. But they took all that.”
‘They’ were first the Russians, who occupied Poland in 1939 following the Nazi-Soviet pack, then the Nazis in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Persecution of the Jewish people started immediately.
Janine was just nine years old when she was forced to leave her home in 1941, with her parents and brother, Tunio, and move into one room in an area on the edge of town, which was to become a ghetto.
Her father dug a hole underneath the wardrobe in the sparsely-furnished room, where Janine, her brother and her mother could hide in case of a raid. There wasn’t room for all the family.
Inevitably, the Germans came. Janine’s father was shot dead - and she never saw her grandmother again.
Forced into the ghetto, her mother fell seriously ill with typhus, contracted from lice, flea or mite bites. She died. She was 29 years old.
Orphaned with her brother, Janine was sent with her aunt to live on a farm. They hid in a stable, safe from the city and the raids.
But this time, it wasn’t the Germans they had to fear. The ‘kind’ farmer who had taken them in, grabbed and attempted to rape Janine’s aunt, who fled, scared for her life.
She was followed by Janine and Tunio, who returned to the ghetto, where an uncle found a poor Catholic family to take them in.
The Germans came to the house and found them. Janine feared she would be killed, but instead they fixed their sights on Turio, her brother. They shot him dead. He was seven years old.
Living a lie as a Catholic, Janine was taken in by another family, but they threw her out when they realised she was Jewish.
A family friend then arranged to take Janine to another farm and directed her to hide in a loft. When they lifted the hatch, to Janine’s astonishment, her aunt and 12 other Jewish people were already there.
A bunker was dug under the stable floor and during one night, dressed only in underwear, Janine - with the others - was led into the hole.
“I was wearing just pants and there was three planks which we took it in turns to lay on,” she said.
“There was little food, just a slice of dry bread and a couple of onions - we thought it was delicious.
“One of the adults would leave when it was dark to try and find food - and she would not return until the following night so she was not seen.”
Janine lived in the bunker for a year. No fresh air. No light. Very little food.
The Polish Committee in a nearby town issued Janine with false papers, so she was sent to a convent, where she experience the joy of sleeping in a bed; but the nuns changed their minds and sent her away with a bus fare to Krakow and to another convent, where Janine feared she would be exposed as she didn’t know the Cathlic prayers being called.
She was relieved to be chosen as one of four girls by a priest, who cared for them and it enabled Janine to learn to walk again after her year of dark, cramped confinement.
She began working as a maid, aged 11, and wrote to her remaining family but received no reply, so feared they were all dead.
But at the end of the war - something she believed would never happen - her aunt, whom Janine hadn’t seen since she fled from the
farmer who tried to rape her in 1941, found her.
But the pain still wasn’t over - many Poles still persecuted Jews when the war had ended, killing them and taking their property.
So, Janine’s aunt took the decision to take them to Paris, where Janine - s till only 14 - was placed in an orphange for Jewish children, where she was cared for.
This is Janine’s story; one she has told to schoolchildren for the past 12 years. To teach tolerance and understanding. A remarkable lady.
Pupils’ questions from the floor:
What do you say to people who say the Holocaust didn’t happen?
I would be a bit hurt, but at the same time, I would look at that person and think ‘are they mad’? I was there; my cousin Nina was there. I think they are liars - or psychopaths.
Did you think it was going to go on forever?
To be honest, I thought it would go on and thought I might have to pretend that I wasn’t Jewish all my life and I remember when I was about 12, wondering what would happen if the war finished.
How did it feel to be persecuted by ordinary people?
It’s impossible to accept what happened during the war. I find it very difficult to accept that people can badly treat one another because they have a different religion. It is still going on . I seeing children dying on television and it breaks my heart.
Did you think you would give up?
No, never. Never. I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be caught. I wanted to live.