On Friday 4 April, I had the great privilege of meeting a truly wonderful lady. That lady was Janine Webber, a survivor of the Holocaust. Janine was coming to speak at an event I was running at my old school, Hugh Christie Technology College. As a Regional Ambassador for the Holocaust Trust, a charity dedicated to educating people across the UK about the Holocaust, part of my role is to create events that allow Holocaust survivors to share their story of struggle and survival.
I picked Janine up from the station and drove her back to school. It was immediately obviously that Janine was just a brilliant woman. Warm in her demeanour, interested everything I was blathering on about, I knew that Janine was going to be a star and a big hit with everyone she met.
I was nervous though. With more than 100 people expected from surrounding schools, community groups, teaching networks and also local residents, I wondered if I’d make it through my introductory and closing speeches without getting emotional. As you can imagine, talking about the Holocaust isn’t exactly the easiest.
Janine began. She stood at the front, dressed immaculately and looking amazing. Her first sentence, ‘I was born in 1932’. A gasp, ‘not possible’ I overheard. Given the time period being talked about, of course we’d expect Janine to be a child of the 30’s, but her stoical appearance masks both her age and her previous traumas.
She went on to speak engagingly about the terror she went through at the hands of the Nazi’s. Some of the audience were as young as 12, but Janine made everyone feel comfortable even when discussing some big themes and experiences that luckily, none of us have ever had to endure. I have to say, one of the last places you expected to be laughing is at a holocaust survivor testimony, but Janine’s story was woven with recent family anecdotes and points that we can all relate to or consider. This humorous approach not only makes audiences feel comfortable with engaging with such a difficult topic, but acts as a bit of therapy for Janine when she dredges up such horrific memories.
On one occasion she tried to explain the difference aspects of Jewish faith and culture, ‘do I look weird?’. A laugh went around and of course the point had been made just perfectly. Everyone is different, no matter who we are, what religion we are, who we love, what we are interested in, we are all normal individuals just going about our lives.
This is why history is so important, because it makes us consider today, the here and now.
For about 45 minutes Janine recalled how she on several occasions she had to hide from the SS as they searched her house. On one occasion, they found her father. He was shot.
Janine and her family were moved into the Lvov ghetto. Her mother caught typhus and died in the ghetto, an experience that as a young girl, Janine has never forgotten. She recalled how she never had the chance to say goodbye to her mother, a fact that haunts her to this day. Her uncle was able to find a non-Jewish family outside the ghetto prepared to hide Janine. She went on to live another family with her brother but one day the Polish daughter of the family brought home an SS officer so she was forced to flee. Her brother was killed by the SS officer.
She managed to find work as a shepherdess where she remained until the family she was living with learnt of her Jewish identity. Janine’s Aunt had given her the name and address of a Polish man, Edek who was the caretaker of a convent in Lvov and she went to him and hid in the attic of a building. On reaching the attic, she was reunited with her aunt, uncle and 12 other Jews in hiding. Janine was stay in a hole in ground for a year. Janine’s aunt managed to obtain fake papers for her and she was taken to a convent. Janine and her Aunt survived the war.
This is just a brief snippet of what Janine endured, all before she was 15 years old.
We can’t imagine the starvation that she went through, what she had to witness as a child, but more so, the utter fear that she would have lived with throughout the war. What’s the worst we endure as children? School lessons, homework, early bedtime, eating your greens?
After Janine’s talk there was a chance for the audience to ask questions, and really interesting ones there were too. I’ve picked up on a few that I found particularly fascinating.
What would you say to a holocaust denier?
‘I don’t know I’ve never met one’ – Typical Janine humour. She then went on to give a heartfelt answer that very nearly tipped me over the edge…
I’d say I wish they were right. I wish everyone was lying but I’ve grown up not knowing my parents, not having a family because the Nazis killed them. Of course I wish they were right, I was deprived of my childhood, I wanted that back.
How do you feel about the Germans?
It has nothing to do with the young people of Germany, we mustn’t be angry with them, otherwise hate will just perpetuate for future generations. But I find it difficult with the really older Germans. They were there and they knew.
Do you still believe in God
When I was in hiding I was told never to reveal my Jewish identity, so I grew up thinking there was something wrong with me, that being Jewish was bad. As such I’ve never really followed the faith. I say I’m Jewish but I don’t do much about it!
My time to sum up had come, and this is what I had to say:
Firstly, isn’t Janine one of the most remarkable people you’ve had the pleasure of hearing from? The next time you’re having a rubbish day at work, or feel like having a grumble just take moment to remember tonight, and how lucky we all are to grow up and live in a country where we are all free to be individuals. Where democracy is second nature, where free speech and religion freedoms are at the forefront of the way we live our lives.
It is so important that people continue to remember the Holocaust. This horrific period in history didn’t just happen one day because Adolf Hitler willed it to. It happened because ordinary people allowed persecution and discrimination to permeate all aspects of their society. Sadly, there are far too many people in this country and others that still don’t believe the Holocaust ever happened.
Janine has done her bit, she survived so that she could tell her story. We now all have a duty, to remember Janine, the survivors and of course, the many millions that suffered at the hands of Nazi persecution. We are all actually connected to the Holocaust. We will all know someone, directly or indirectly that fought in the Second World War. Our parents and grandparents fought for freedom and we mustn’t let them down by simply forgetting, creating and building a future without a link to our past.
You might notice on your seats an envelope and inside a comment card. If you have a moment, I’d be grateful if you could respond to some of the questions included. As I mentioned right at the very beginning, HET is a charity and therefore relies on donations. Every penny raised is invested in holocaust education, teaching students, providing support to schools and teachers, and of course to support survivors in their quest to educate others. If you feel so inclined, Janine and I would be hugely grateful if you would make a donation. This envelope can be dropped into the box over on the table.
I’m delighted to say that this fundraising effort raised more than a £150 for holocaust education.
This was a truly remarkable day and one that I will never forget. I hope this was the outcome for those that attended too.