The heroism of a Polish Catholic teenager who saved Jews during the Holocaust was recognised this week, on the eve of Yom Hashoah, by one of the youngest people he rescued —Janine Webber, who now lives in Enfield, north London.
And thanks to some serious detective work by Marc Cave, a film-maker and trustee of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, Mrs Webber now knows the real identity of the man she knew only as “Edek”. He was a 19-year-old member of the Polish Resistance, Franciszek Rzottky, who hid the young Janine and 13 other Jews in an underground bunker for almost a year.
His rescue effort was unusually successful — all 14 Jews survived the war. But Mrs Webber, a young girl of 11 in 1943-4, only knew their Polish saviour as Edek, a name said to be as common in Polish as Edward is in English.
According to journalist Etan Smallman, who interviewed Mrs Webber, she approached a BBC documentary team, who spent six months fruitlessly trying to find Edek.
But last year Mrs Webber was filmed for the National Holocaust Centre in a short feature produced by Marc Cave. And Mr Cave took up the search — and struck lucky.
He told Mrs Webber that he had cross-checked testimonies in Polish and Czech, with help from the Polin museum in Warsaw and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Edek, he told her, was Franciszek Rzottky.
Mrs Webber’s rescue came about after she was orphaned in the wake of the 1941 Nazi invasion of Ukraine. Her uncle, Selig, gave her a paper with the name Edek, and an address, telling her to find him if she ever needed help.
Miraculously, according to Etan Smallman, in 1943 she did find Edek.
She said: “I told him who I was and he said, ‘Follow me — at a distance’. 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 dug a bunker under the building and remained hidden there in safety until the end of the war. Marc Cave discovered that the building was in the grounds of a convent, where Rzottky worked as a night watchman and where his sister, Floriana, was Mother Superior. Rzottky eventually entered the priesthood, but died in 1972, aged 49.
In 1997, unknown to Mrs Webber, Rzottky and Janina and Tadeusz Lewandowski, who organised food and money for the 14 hidden Jews, were named as Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem.
Now the National Holocaust Centre will plant a white rose in Rzottky’s memory. The centre’s chief executive, Phil Lyons said he hoped the small ceremony would “help transform fear and persecution of ‘otherness’ into mutual acceptance at this time of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial”.