To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Holocaust survivor Janine Webber tells us of her journey into hiding to escape the Nazis.
I was born in Lvov, in Poland in 1932. In June 1941, when I was 9 years old, the Germans occupied Lvov. Almost immediately they started rounding up Jewish men. Almost immediately they started rounding up Jewish men. One day I heard screams in German on the stairs. My father rushed in saying "the Nazis are after me!". He ran to the balcony of our kitchen and jumped from our second floor flat to the balcony of the first floor. My mother locked the door and we helped to push the table against it. After a minute of so the Germans started banging on the door, shouting "open up!". We opened the door; they came in and, not seeing my father, went out. After a while my father limped in. He had managed to hide under the overhang of the rood and had broken his leg. This was my first experience with the Nazis and it filled me with a feeling of fear which never left me.
Very soon we were told to leave our flat. We were evacuated to a small house where we were given one room for the four of us. My cousin, Nina, her parents and brother had another room, and my grandmother had a bed in the corridor. My parents made a hole under a wardrobe so that we could hide in case of a raid. When we learnt that the Nazis were coming, my mother, brother and I hid in the hole. There was not enough room for my father and my grandmother so they decided to hide in the loft. The Nazis found them and I later found out that my father was shot. I do not know what happened to my grandmother.
My mother had no money left for food; she and my aunts gave what little food they had to us children. We continued to live in fear until one day we heard the Nazis coming with their dogs. We all hid in sort of dog’s kennel in the yard along with another woman. I remember looking out through the wooden slats and seeing just the polished boots of the soldiers: I was terrified and trembling. The dogs started barking and at that moment Nina started crying. The woman with us put a pillow on her face. The SS men did not find us. When the pillow was removed from Nina’s face, she was fast asleep.
The ghetto was ready to receive the Jews of Lvov. We were allocated a small room. Conditions in the ghetto were awful; I remember the misery, the starvation, the dead bodies of children lying in the streets and the hanging of people left there to create terror. My aunt Rouja’s partner had a contact in the SS who would warn him of the raids. One day they started looking for men and women. My mother hid in the cellar. She caught typhus, but there was no medicine to help. She was in the cellar lying on an iron bed when I saw her last, delirious and covered in sores. After seeing her I just ran out, unable to bear it any longer. Soon after my mother, Lipka, died. She was 29. Nina’s mother also caught typhus. The soldiers would throw bodies onto a cart on top of each other, dead or alive, and she was one of them and still alive..
My uncle paid for my aunt Rouja and me to stay with a Polish Christian farming family. They hid us in a stable. One morning the farmer came and started harassing my aunt. I was only 9 and did not understand what it was all about but I could see that my aunt was very frightened. She begged him to leave her alone. But he persisted and suddenly she ran out of the stables. I was left on my own and they locked me in a small room. They gave me a coat, infested with head lice, as a blanket. I kept killing the lice, and having something to do saved my sanity. I stayed there for some time, until they told me to leave.
My uncle Zelig found another Polish family for my brother Tunio and myself. They were given money to hide us. After two or three months the daughter of the family, a young woman of about 20, brought in an armed SS man in uniform. I knew that it was to kill us. But he did not kill me. They told me to get moving. I started walking. I wondered if the SS man was going to shoot me. Even today I wonder why he didn’t. But they killed my 7 year old brother. How can I forget that.
I continued walking and after a few hours I saw a woman working in the fields. I asked her if she had some bread; I was hungry by now. She invited me to come with her into her family house. She gave me some soup and said I could stay with her for a while. I did not tell her I was Jewish but said I was Polish and my family had been killed by the Ukrainians. I stayed there and helped look after their cows. One day when I was in the fields the daughter of the previous family who had brought in the SS walked towards me and said that my brother had been buried alive. I did not say anything. I could not cry, but I felt a big lump in my throat.
My new Polish family had learnt that I was Jewish and said it was too risky for them to keep me. They bought me a train ticket and I went back to Lvov. I had been given by Rouja the name and address of a Polish man who might help me. By sheer luck I managed to find Edek. He was sitting in his office alone. I told him who I was. He just looked at me without saying a word. Then he got up and said, “Follow me at a good distance.” I wondered if he was going to give me away to the SS. At last we arrived at a small building. He put a ladder against the wall and told me to climb it and go through the door to the loft. When I opened that door I saw a group of people sitting or lying. My aunt Rouja was there, my uncle Zelig and Rouja’s partner; altogether 14 people. After a month or two we moved to a bunker under the stable floor, which they had dug out, working at night.
I stayed there for nearly a year but the conditions were poor. We would take it in turns to lie on the planks or sit. There was no room for walking, there was no air and minimal sanitary conditions. After a year my aunt and uncle decided that I would not be able to survive in this hole any longer, so she managed to get me some false identity papers, and one day we left the bunker. I had difficulty in walking and was very pale and thin. My aunt took me to a Polish Committee, which was set up to help the Poles who had been persecuted by the Ukrainians.
I pretended to be Catholic to hide in convent in Krakow and from there I moved to a priest’s house, before moving again to live and work as a maid with an elderly couple.
I later wrote to Edek, the young man who was the caretaker of the convent and who had hidden the 14 of us, and gave him my address. Six months after the war, my aunt came to fetch me. I was in the fields and saw her coming. She said, “Do you know who I am?” “Yes,” I replied. “Do you know you are Jewish?” I did not know who I was anymore, and I was frightened to answer.
She put me in a children's home in Poland but there was still a lot of antisemitism there so very soon we all left for France. I went to school in France, passed a few exams and then worked for a year. At the end of 1956 I went to England to improve my English. I met an Englishman and eventually settled here. I now have two sons and two grandsons and I love them very much.