Filmmaker Debs Paterson met Holocaust survivor Janine Webber at her home. Janine survived the Holocaust by moving between hiding places in occupied Poland, witnessing the Nazis seizing her brother and father in the process. Debs and Janine explored the effect these experiences have had on her life and her outreach work – as well as the importance of educating young people about the past.
Debs Paterson meets Janine Webber
This is Debs’ creative response to Janine’s story, a short film entitled ‘Nazi Boots’.
Debs explains that “When I first met Janine and listened to her story, I was particularly struck by two things. One was how fresh her memories seemed. Being honest, I had expected that they might feel a bit like old postcards, faded inevitably over these 70 years – but it all felt so fresh as she described it. Like the little girl she was then was in the room with us as well. Maybe this is partly because Janine has sound a young and vibrant countenance. But I was struck by how much her ‘little girl’ seems to live with her still – and how this is often an offshoot of childhood trauma – that the child and the adult continue to go through life together.
I was also very struck by the image of a grandmother wanting to go back with a toy gun to the farm house where she and her little brother were betrayed. We took some poetic license with the toy gun, in order to try and connect the young girl’s sense of wanting to right a wrong, with the grown woman’s desire to find those people and make them understand what they had done. (Janine was very clear she never wanted to take a real gun, only a toy). I found that image very compelling and powerful, particularly along with the fact that voicing this desire ultimately led her to start getting help for the trauma she had experienced, and to start telling her story. That image of the woman with the child’s gun, and the image of her lifelong nightmares about the nazi boots – became my starting point in thinking about narrative. Particularly because Janine told me she finally stopped dreaming about the boots once she started sharing her story.
I was blown away by the huge amount of good will our incredibly talented cast and crew showed in coming together to make the project – especially filming the week before christmas and post producing the first week of the new year – along with our exec producers and the Holocaust Memorial Day team too. I am hugely grateful to all those involved for their talent and generosity.
There is so much more to Janine’s story we weren’t able to tell in one short film – but meeting her and working on this project has been a wonderful experience and we all hope the film is a suitable tribute to her and her family.”
Janine was born in 1932 in Lwow, Poland (now in Ukraine). Her name was Niunia and her family owned a grocery. In 1941, when Janine was nine, the Germans invaded the city. Janine and her mother stayed inside the apartment while her father worked to make a living.
One day her father burst in shouting ‘the Germans are rounding up the Jewish men!’ Janine’s mother pushed the bed against the door and her father jumped from the third to the first floor balcony and managed to escape onto a nearby roof. It was at this point Janine remembers being frightened about what was unfolding.
The persecution of the Jews escalated. The family were forced from their apartment in preparation to be sent to live in the ghetto being established for the Jews. They lived in a small house with their extended family. There was hardly room to move, the family had little money and survived on potatoes.
Janine remembers being extremely frightened by Nazi persecution.
Janine’s parents dug a hole underneath the wardrobe to hide in during Nazi raids and she can recall the tension during the first round up and then always fearing them after that. Janine, her mother and her brother would hide beneath the wardrobe while the others took refuge in the loft and she remembers to this day seeing the polished black SS boots in the home. Her grandmother was thrown down the stairs and other members of her family were taken away. They later learned that Janine’s father had been shot, and her uncle and young cousin taken to a concentration camp.
Soon the rest of Janine’s family were moved to the ghetto proper where they would hide in a rat-infested cellar. Her mother had become ill due to the lack of food and poor sanitary conditions and there in the dank cellar Janine’s uncle prepared a bed for her mother to rest.
Janine remembers going to see her mother – she was covered in sores, unable to move. She ran out, distressed at seeing her mother this way. She would never lay eyes on her again.
Janine’s uncle found non-Jewish families who were willing to shelter her and her aunt outside the ghetto. They both experienced abuse at the hands of this family and in the end they left – her aunt went back to the ghetto and Janine joined her brother with another Polish family. One day the daughter of the family brought an armed SS man to the house. They called Janine outside and the soldier told her to ‘go!’ and pointed towards the distance. Janine began to walk while her brother was held – she didn’t know where to.
Eventually she found a woman working in the fields and asked for bread. The woman invited Janine to stay and help. One day she recalls the daughter who had brought the SS guard coming towards her.
‘The SS-man buried your brother alive’, she said with a smile. Janine looked at her but remained silent. She felt numb – shocked, angry and in pain.
When the family learned she was Jewish they asked her to leave as it was too dangerous for her to stay. They bought her a train ticket back to Lwow. Her Aunt Rouja had given her the details of a Polish man who might be able to help her. By luck she managed to find him. He took Janine to a loft where she found her Aunt Rouja, her uncle, and 14 others.
Janine stayed here for nearly a year in poor conditions – there was little air, it was often stifling and they had to take it in turns to lie down. After a year Aunt Rouja managed to get Janine false papers. She learnt her new identity by heart. Janine was taken to a committee which helped persecuted Poles. They gave Janine papers to go to a convent in Krakow. It was difficult for Janine to walk because her legs had been so underused while in hiding. At the convent she had to mouth the Catholic prayers and was scared that someone would find her out.
One day a priest arrived, wanting to take four children to look after at his home. Janine went with him, and was too frightened to tell anyone she was Jewish. She took communion at church every Sunday and worked as a maid.
Six months after the war her aunt came to collect her. She asked ‘do you know that you are Jewish?’ Janine was frightened. She didn’t know who she was anymore.
Janine’s aunt took her to a children’s home in Poland but antisemitism was still rife. The family left for France. At the end of 1956 she came to England, met her future husband and built her life. She has two sons and two grandsons.
Debs Paterson is a director and writer currently based between London and LA. Her first film Africa United (Pathé/BBC Films) was an adventure road trip set in Rwanda, Burundi and South Africa about a group of young Rwandans trying to travel to the World Cup.
Her first short film We Are All Rwandans was a dramatic reconstruction of the true story of teenagers who stood up to genocidal rebels – an inspirational account that was unheard of outside of Rwanda. Debs is drawn to untold stories, and believes in the power of film to connect humans who seem or look very different. She is excited to be part of this project for this very reason, because she believes that imagining the ‘unimaginable’ is vital.