Janine Webber: The Holocaust survivor fighting prejudice through hip hop

The 86-year-old tells Jack Dutton how she teamed up with rapper Kapoo to make a short film, ‘Edek’, named after the Polish man who hid her from the Nazis

Sunday 17 March 2019 08:22
Holocaust survivor Janine Webber and rapper Kapoo bonded instantly
Holocaust survivor Janine Webber and rapper Kapoo bonded instantly

Janine, Janine? Where have you been? What have you seen? A child on the run from the killing machine,” raps London-based MC Kapoo in the new short film Edek.

Edek tells the story of Janine Webber, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor. Webber’s story is traumatic, but it carries a powerful message. The film is, after all, named after the man who hid her and 13 other Jews from the Nazis in Poland when he was only 19.

Thought-provoking and full of dark undertones, Edek features footage of Webber telling her story to young people and flashbacks of her as a child. The music is gritty; a mix of heavy hip-hop drums, ominous bass lines and reflective piano samples.

Webber regularly tells her story all over the UK, including at the National Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, but not everyone has heard it. With Edek, producer Marc Cave and director Malcolm Green wanted to tell her story in a way that young people could relate to: through the medium of hip hop.

Before she began working on the Edek project, Webber was unfamiliar with hip hop – her favourite types of music are opera and jazz. Yet, when Green introduced her to Kapoo, the pair instantly bonded.

“When I heard hip hop and Kapoo I was amazed,” Webber says. “I don’t know much about that kind of music and I would like to learn more. Whenever I hear it on the radio and TV I listen and try and understand it.”

Kapoo’s own musical taste is varied, inspired by jazz, rock and reggae, as well as hip hop. He has worked on a number of projects with Dan Canyon from Bone Idols and played festivals including Glastonbury.

“It was something different, outside the box compared to what I’m used to,” he says. “I’m a big connoisseur of trying to find a different lane rather than normal Nineties boom bap hip hop.”

And the story – of Edek’s actions which send out a strong and inspiring message against prejudice – was unlike anything Kapoo had ever worked on.

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More than 100,000 Jews were crammed into the Lwowghetto during WWII

On 30 June 1941, the Germans overran the Polish city of Lwow (now Lviv in the Ukraine) and thousands of Jews were murdered.

“When I was a child, the Nazis came and in 1941 the persecution of the Jews started,” Webber recalls. “At first, the Ukrainians started persecuting them. They started rounding people up and came for my father within weeks.”

The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police and the SS carried out violent raids. They came to Webber’s house looking for her father Alfred, but he managed to escape jumping from the second floor balcony to the first floor balcony. Later that year, the Gestapo found Alfred and Webber’s grandmother hiding in the loft and took them away. They shot Alfred dead.

At the end of 1941, 120,000 Jews were moved into the Lwow ghetto, separated from the rest of the city. It was overcrowded, dirty and disease was rife.

“The atmosphere was terrible for Jewish people and in the ghetto there was very little food. I had to be careful in case there were raids as the Gestapo was rounding up people, so I had to try and find hiding places.”

When her mother Malka died aged 29 of typhus after falling ill in the ghetto, Webber was left to fend for herself and her seven-year-old brother Arturo. Both were orphans before they turned 10.

“Eventually I managed to leave the ghetto,” Webber says. “I was told, at age nine, not to tell anyone that I was Jewish. I had to pretend I was a Catholic and I was asked to look nice, be happy and smiling. To not show my emotions.”

Webber’s uncle Selig found hiding places for her, Arturo and their aunt Rouja in the countryside. When in hiding, a farmer’s daughter betrayed Webber and Arturo to the SS, who shot Arturo and buried him alive.

Webber feared for her life, but she was spared by the SS and left in the countryside, keeping a low profile. At the time, Rouja had a boyfriend called Rudek, whose friend Edek was a member of the Polish resistance.

“He was very keen on politics and so Rudek would meet him in a café and discuss the political situation,” says Webber. “I was told he would help me if I needed help and I managed to find him.”

Edek hid Janine, Rouja, Selig and 11 other Jews in a bunker he dug underneath his estate. Webber stayed in that hole for nearly a year without leaving once, but escaped the Gestapo.

“It was very hot and the heat was unbearable. We hid the whole day and night because there was no daylight, no fresh air. We had to take it in turns to lie on the plank or sit on the chair, there was no place to move. My auntie would go out at night and manage to buy a little food and come back the following night.”

Eventually, Webber obtained false papers and travelled to Krakow, taking refuge in a convent pretending to be a Catholic orphan. She lived with a priest and had to learn Catholic teachings and hymns so her true identity wouldn’t be found out. She worked as a maid until Krakow was liberated in 1945 when she was 13.

At first, Webber found it difficult to talk about what she had experienced, even to the people closest to her, but after seeing a psychotherapist, she managed to eventually record her story with the Steven Spielberg USC Shoah Foundation. Sharing the story was liberating. “I used to have terrible nightmares about the shiny black boots that the Gestapo wore. After I started talking more, the nightmares disappeared. It’s helped a lot.”

Nazis deport Polish Jews to a death camp from Krakow in 1942

“I have a big regard and respect for her,” says Kapoo. “Coming from that kind of situation, losing her family and going through all that turmoil in that particular part of the world, it was just an honour to meet her and feel that energy.”

Webber never knew Edek’s last name and has not been able to locate him since she escaped. Edek is a common name in Poland, like Edward is in the UK, but Webber and Cave have managed to narrow it down to 12 Edeks.

“We know from uncle Selig’s autobiographical record that Edek went to study theology in Krakow after the war – we narrowed it down to 12 Edeks and we are in the process of reducing it down from the 12,” says Cave.

Webber hopes that once they find Edek, they can make him part of the Righteous Among the Nations – an honorific title for those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, is helping Webber and Cave with their search.

“Edek was very brave, really a hero. He would have been shot immediately, if they had found he was hiding a group of Jewish people,” she says.

“It is extremely important to be tolerant and to stand up to persecution against minorities and unfortunately there’s a rise in antisemitism in Europe, including in the UK. I would like people to stand up against all prejudice.”

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