Almost 80 years on, Janine Webber has finally discovered what happened to her ‘Schindler’, she tells Etan Smallman
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How do you repay someone who not only saved your life, but put theirs in danger in the process? Where do you start when your saviour’s act of bravery took place almost eight decades ago, and when you don’t even know their name?
“They just called him Edek. Nobody knew his surname,” says Janine Webber, sitting on the sofa in her immaculate living room in Enfield, north London.
The Polish-born Jewish grandmother is still relishing life at 86, due to the heroism of a man she has never been able to thank – a fact that today, on Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day, she feels more keenly than ever.
Webber was born in July 1932 in Lvov, now in western Ukraine. “That sounds a little like the English word ‘love’, doesn’t it?” she says. “Well, there was very little love shown towards our family.”
The Nazis invaded in 1941, when Webber was nine. Her parents dug a hole underneath their wardrobe in which to hide. It was not enough – during a Gestapo raid, her father, Alfred, was shot dead, and her grandmother thrown down the stairs and dragged away to a fate unknown. Webber and her mother, Lipka, were moved to the ghetto; hiding in a dog kennel, then a rat-infested cellar. It was there that Lipka died of typhus, aged just 29. Webber was an orphan before her tenth birthday.
Her mother’s brother, Uncle Selig, found a Polish farmer willing to hide Webber and her younger brother, Arturo. But the two children were betrayed by the family’s 20-year-old daughter, who brought an SS officer to the farmhouse. He ordered Webber to walk away. Her brother – she later discovered after a chance encounter with the farmer’s daughter, who delivered the awful news with a smile – had been shot and then buried alive. He was seven.
By 1943, Webber was alone, roaming the countryside and finding work as a shepherdess – constantly in fear for her life. All she had in her possession was a piece of paper, on which was written the name and address of a Polish Catholic teenager named Edek. It had been given to her by Uncle Selig, who said: “If you ever need help, try and find him.”
Webber tracked him down. “I told him who I was and he said, ‘Follow me – at a distance’,” she recalls. “He took me to a building. He put a ladder against the wall and told me to climb up. I opened the door and that’s where I found my aunt, my uncle… 13 Jews. I was the only child.”
The group soon dug a bunker under Edek’s barn, in which to hide. “When we went down the hole, I never left for almost a year,” Webber says. The group had a single chair, a bucket and some planks to sleep on – there was barely space to move.
Her Aunt Rouja, was so concerned about her niece’s health in the airless, stifling underground shelter that she somehow managed to obtain false papers for her escape. Webber memorised her new identity – Janina Kopielska, a young Catholic girl whose parents had been killed – and, though struggling to walk, made it to a convent in Krakow. She ended up working as a maid for an elderly couple, where Rouja managed to find her six months after liberation.
All 14 Jews in the bunker survived the war. But Webber never saw Edek again. She moved to France, then England, where she married, had two sons and rebuilt her life. She did not speak about her ordeal until the 1990s, first opening up during filming for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which was collating the testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
Around the same time, she saw a psychotherapist and began giving talks to schools.
“I realised only then – it seems absolutely incredible because it was 50 years later – the importance,” she says. “I thought about Edek. He risked his life at every moment. Hiding Jews, he would have been shot immediately.”
Webber approached a BBC documentary team, who spent six months trying to find her rescuer, but to no avail. After all, Edek is as common a name in Polish as Edward is in English.
Then, late last year, she made a short film about her story. Its producer Marc Cave, a trustee of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, picked up the search.
Just a week ago, he shared his breakthrough over the phone. By cross-checking testimonies in Polish and Czech, with help from the Polin museum in Warsaw and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, he had solved the 80 year-old mystery. “Edek” was 19-year-old Franciszek Rzottky, a member of the Polish Resistance.
“I was astounded,” Webber says. “It was so surprising. He really deserves to be celebrated, what an incredible man, and so young. I feel I can do something at last.”
But there was more. Webber had forgotten her real first name: Janine was her “war name” (the Gallicised version of Janina) and her parents had always called her “Niunia,” which means “little bird”. Thanks to Cave’s research, she now knows that she was born Berta.
She also knows that Rzottky, born in March 1923, was sent to – and escaped from – both a labour camp and a concentration camp, but never betrayed the Jews in his care.
Cave discovered that the bunker had been in the grounds of a convent, where Rzottky worked as a night watchman and where his sister, Floriana, was Mother Superior. He would go on to obtain a theology degree and enter the priesthood, and died in 1972, aged 49. There are no known photos of him.
Before I leave, I mention that Rzottky was honoured by Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem. He was recognised – along with Janina and Tadeusz Lewandowski, who organised food and money for the 14 hidden Jews – as Righteous Among the Nations in 1997. Their names are memorialised in a garden there.
“He was?” a shocked Webber asks. “So somebody knew his name? Oh gosh, it makes me so happy,” she says, visibly moved.
I bring the certificate up on my phone and Webber tries to decipher the words in Polish, a language she has long forgotten. “What a man! Oh, I’m so pleased, I could cry! It’s just unbelievable that people like that exist.
“I’ve felt over the years quite guilty not having done anything to thank him.”
Today, for the first time, she will. She and Cave are meeting for lunch this afternoon and will be raising a glass of champagne to Rzottky. The National Holocaust Centre will be planting a white rose in his honour, something its chief executive Phil Lyons hopes will help “transform fear and persecution of ‘otherness’ into mutual acceptance” at this time of rising anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
Webber also has a message for people, along those lines: “I would like them, if they see people being persecuted, to stand up, to help, to do something, like Edek did,” she says. “He accepted that we were Jewish and he saved our lives.”
- For information about the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, visit holocaust.org.uk.