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Eyewitness to History: Rose-Helene Spreiregen

Rose-Helene Spreiregen was born in 1931 in Paris, France, where she experienced steadily increasing persecution of Jews during the Nazi occupation beginning in 1940. She and her grandmother escaped the city and survived the war hiding in a small town in southern France, where they had to forage food from the forest.



Rose-Helene Spreiregen:

My name is Rose-Helene Spreiregen.

I am a Holocaust survivor and Museum volunteer.

I was born in Paris, France on March 6, 1931.

My family had emigrated from Poland in the late 1920s because of rampant antisemitism and violent attacks against Jews.

My parents met in Paris in 1929 and were married shortly thereafter.

Unfortunately, they separated when I was an infant, so I lived with my mother and grandmother and sometimes in foster homes.

When I was five, my mother sent me to live in a boarding school for Jewish children in the small town of Louveciennes in the western suburbs of Paris and I went to school in town along with the other children.

Because my mother couldn't afford the cost of the boarding house, I sometimes had to leave Louveciennes and return home to Paris.

On those occasions, I recall adults talking about the threat of war with Germany.

World War II began when Germany invaded Poland.

Fearing bombings and gas attacks the authorities in Paris decided to evacuate the elderly and children.

So it was that I, along with my grandmother and younger cousin Bernard, was sent to Savigny-sur-Brave, a town well southeast of Paris.

During our eight months in Savigny-sur-Brave, my cousin and I went to school and life had the semblance of normality.

But that changed abruptly in May 1940, when Germany invaded western Europe.

The roads soon became filled with refugees fleeing Nazi occupation in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and western France.

They brought with them whatever they could, their belongings packed onto bicycles or carriages or horse-drawn wagons.

The roads were lined with abandoned cars that had run out of fuel.

Many people simply walked with whatever they could carry.

I remember my grandmother offering them bread and water—anything she could spare.

German attack airplanes often strafed these columns of refugees in order to cause congestion and chaos, obstructing the mobility of the collapsing French army.

It was during that time that my mother came to visit, but in one of the air attacks she received a wound in her foot.

She had to return to Paris for medical help and I went with her.

The journey was extremely difficult as we navigated roads packed with people and avoided bombing air raids by sheltering in ditches along the road.

It remains indelible in my memory.

We managed to get to Paris, where she received treatment.

Paris was now occupied by the Germans.

Towards the end of 1940, all Jews were required to register themselves with the French police, who were collaborating with the German occupiers.

It didn't take long for antisemitic legislation and daily acts of discrimination to begin.

Jews were forbidden to go to restaurants, parks, or movie theaters.

They could not posses a radio or telephone.

A 6:00 pm curfew was instituted.

In May 1941, the French police began arresting and deporting Jewish men of foreign nationality, including a number of my uncles and cousins.

They were detained in internment camps at Compiegne, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande for over 13 months before being detained at Drancy and transferred elsewhere.

They never returned.

By 1942 every Jew, six years of age and older was issued three yellow Stars of David, inscribed with the French word for Jew, "Juif."

The star had to be sewn, not pinned, on the left side of an outer garment and was to be clearly visible at all times.

The antisemitic legislations continued to worsen.

Jews could only go grocery shopping with their ration tickets for one hour each day.

The lines were long and all too often by the time one entered a shop, the food was sold out.

Jews were required to travel in the last car of the metro subway trains.

They were not allowed to travel further than 25 kilometers, 17 miles from Paris.

I stopped going to school entirely in July 1942, because Jewish children were being pulled out of their classrooms and deported to killing centers.

That same month, French police arrested more than 13,000 Jews in Paris interning them for several days under horrendous conditions in the before Vélodrome d'Hiver sports arena before they were deported.

Luckily, a local policeman who also happened to be a friend of my mother's, had warned about the round up and advised her not to remain in her apartment.

She immediately went into hiding.

My mother decided to try to flee to Vichy France, the unoccupied zone in the southern part of the country.

She obtained false identity papers and was able to find someone who could smuggle her across the border.

Tragically, the smuggler betrayed my mother and a group of friends she was traveling with.

The entire group was arrested and transported to Drancy.

My mother's plan had been to send for my grandmother and me after she found a place to live in the free zone.

Instead, my grandmother and I moved to my mother's vacant apartment.

My mother had taken most of our money, but with the very little we had left, we bribed the concierge to say that my mother had been deported and that her apartment was empty.

My grandmother remained at the apartment for over a year, never once leaving for fear of arrest and deportation.

I was in charge of all outside chores.

Every day I stood in interminable lines to try to buy food, using our ration tickets.

I remember standing in line with my yellow Star of David visible, even though I attempted to conceal it, and being cursed with ugly antisemitic insults such as "dirty Jew" and "kike."

From our apartment we could observe two streets.

On some nights we saw police arrest Jewish families who were in hiding in our neighborhood.

We never knew if someone might denounce us, reveal our presence, and if we'd be arrested.

We sometimes slept in the attic to be extra careful.

Fear was overwhelming and ever present.

There were many close calls during this time.

We couldn't jeopardize our hiding place by going to a bomb shelter during air raids, so we remained in the apartment at great personal risk.

Police officers often arrested Jewish passengers who were easily identified by the yellow stars as they exited the subway stations.

On several occasions as I was about to exit the station, I saw people being arrested.

To avoid the arrest, I would quickly slip back down into the station and onto another train.

Other times, I was lucky enough to find my way to an exit that was safe.

I always had to be prepared.

I was always frightened.

I was just 11 years old.

In August 1943, my grandmother realized that we couldn't remain in Paris.

We were determined to join my aunt and cousin who had successfully made the journey south to the free zone.

They were living in the town of Voiron in and southeast France, near the Swiss border.

We obtained false identity papers from the French underground and spent time memorizing our new names, dates of birth, and other personal information.

This was very difficult for my grandmother since her French was quite poor.

We only spoke Yiddish to each other.

We left on an overnight train that took us to two border control checkpoints.

The first was under German command; the second, French.

This was especially dangerous since my grandmother spoke little French and still had a strong Polish accent.

I decided that it would be best that my grandmother pretends to be asleep.

I would handle the papers at the checkpoints.

When the German border control guard came, I told him that my grandmother was asleep and asked that he not wake her.

It worked, and we passed.

At the second checkpoint, there was a French border control guard.

I did the same thing and again we passed.

This experience, among the many I had in those terrible years, was the most terrifying of all.

I shook uncontrollably for hours after the encounters.

Instead of being taken care of by an adult, I had become the adult in charge.

I was 12 years old.

In Voiron, we reunited with my aunt and cousin, but it would have been too risky to stay together.

We finally found a place in what I recall as a sort of warehouse.

We had no furniture but a kind neighbor lent us a mattress, some cooking utensils, and a stove that served both for cooking and heating.

There was only cold running water.

At the end of a long corridor was a toilet.

We obtained wooden boxes to store our few belongings.

One of my prized possessions at that time was a woolen dress made for me from a plaid blanket, the only warm dress I had.

Its center was soon eaten away by mice, totally destroyed.

After we settled in, I found a job managing a small grocery store.

Since we lived about three miles east away from the store, the owner, who was ill with tuberculosis, lent me a bicycle.

The journey to and from work was difficult as the terrain was mountainous, the roads were narrow and unlit, and it was the dead of winter.

My wages did not provide enough to sustain us.

My grandmother sewed and mended things by hand and barted for food—a little cheese, a little meat, anything to complement our meager rations.

Often, we traded our own rations of wine and chocolate for staples like milk.

The nearby forest also provided sustenance.

We collected chestnuts, walnuts, and fallen tree branches to use for cooking and heating.

To add to our travails, one day, my grandmother fell and broke two ribs.

Aside from the pain, she could heal only by lying in bed for several weeks.

Not only did I again have to do everything for the two of us, I was further terrified by the realization that that grandmother was immobile, that it would have been impossible for us to flee had we been further threatened.

We were stuck in place, but we continued to survive.

Liberation finally came at the end of August 1944, thanks to the American army.

It was a joyous time.

The soldiers gave us crackers, chocolate, and of all things, chewing gum, something I never knew existed.

We thought that our liberation was the end of our nightmare and we would be able to return to Paris right away.

I fantasized that I could finally have some of the food I had been craving for years: sardines, steak, french-fries, oranges, bananas, a traditional French baguette.

None of these had been available during the war.

But this hope was not to be realized so quickly.

Many railroad tracks and trains had been destroyed by bombing.

We had to wait almost three months, until November 1944, before we could get the train back to Paris.

As for food, rationing lasted for a very long time after liberation.

My food dreams were put on hold, but I was free.


The years of fear lay behind me, the time for hope ahead.

Returning to Paris, we found out that my grandmother's apartment had been completely looted.

Gone were family photos and precious family prayer books that my grandmother had brought from Poland years before.

Gone was my prized possession, the beautiful book I'd received in 1939 at boarding school as a special prize.

The apartment had been lent to someone else, even though we had paid the rent for the entire time we were gone.

It took a couple of years before it was returned to us.

I still had no knowledge of my mother's fate, nor that of my other relatives.

I kept hoping for her return and the return of the others.

Like many French people, I tried to obtain information, but none was available.

She never returned.

It was not until much later that we learned what happened to her.

My mother had stayed at Drancy only a few days before volunteering to accompany a group of children on a transport to Auschwitz.

The children and the adults who volunteered to travel with them were packed into freight cars without water, food, or sanitation.

There was no place to even sit, let alone lie.

My mother's journey occurred in the heat of August.

Those who didn't die en route were gassed immediately upon arrival.

Such was my mother's fate.

She was only 31 years old.

As for me, I could only go forward.

I went back to school as soon as I returned to Paris and earned my high school diploma in just a few months, even after having been away from the school nearly two and a half years.

Sadly, I was unable to continue my education to university, needing to earn money for rent and food.

Eventually, I found a position at the bank and attended night school.

I was all of 16 years old.

I am compelled to tell my story because the increasing rise of antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

It brings back so many terrible memories.

People must know what happened and what can still happen if we do not stand up for others.

Indeed, it has been happening again to other ethnic groups in different parts of the world.

I feel obligated to share my firsthand experiences of such horrors, so that the world can understand the effects of conflict on a small child.

My dear late friend, Charlene Schiff, also a survivor and longtime beloved Holocaust Museum volunteer, gave the simplest and clearest understanding of how such catastrophes as the Holocaust happened.

She called it her "Four I's":

"Indifference, Ignorance, Injustice and Intolerance."

We must remember the six million Jews who were murdered and we must speak out and act on behalf of all those who face the threat of mass atrocities and genocide today.



Bill Benson: Welcome. Thank you for joining us for First Person: Conversations with Holocaust survivors. My name is Bill Benson. I have hosted the Museum's First Person program since it began in 2000.

Each month we bring you first-hand accounts of survival of the Holocaust. Each of our First Person guests serve as a volunteer at the Museum.

We are honored to have Holocaust survivor Rose-Helene Spreiregen share her personal first-hand account of the Holocaust with us.

Rose-Helene, thank you so much for joining us and for agreeing to be our First Person today.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Thank you for having me. Bill Benson: Rose-Helene,you have so much to share with us, we're going to go ahead and get started. Youwere born on March 6, 1931 in Paris, France.

Before you tell us what happened to you and your family during World War II and the Holocaust, please tell us about your family's life during the war—excuse me, before the war.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: My family immigrated from Warsaw, Poland in the late 1920s and they came to Paris

since my grandmother already had two sisters who had their family and knew Paris, so that's

probably why they came. And of course they left Warsaw, Poland because of pogroms and

because of antisemitism, so they had to leave. They arrived in Paris late in the late 1920s and

my mother met someone herein Paris and she got married,

I guess in 1929. I was born in March 1931. And unfortunately the marriage didn't work out

well, so she took me and left her husband and I was an infant at the time.

Bill Benson: I think we have a photograph of your mother and your grandmother here.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Yes this is a picture still taken in Warsaw, Poland of my grandmother and my mother.

Andmy mother was probably then about 17 years old.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, did you have other family members in Paris or elsewhere in France?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Yes. My grandmother had her two sisters living in Paris with their family and they had come here

earlier, a few years before they came. So I guess this is one of the reasons she did come here. Plus

her son, my mother's brother, came to Paris also a couple of years before they emigrated. So there

was no reason for them to stay in Poland with all that antisemitism and pogroms, so they left.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, how did your mother support you and herself?

Rose-Helene Spreregen: My mother was a dressmaker and she tried to do her dress-making in Paris

but it was actually quite difficult because it was a bad time. It was the

How should I say that? Bill Benson: During the Depression, right? Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Yeah, it was right in the middle of the Depression so work was hard to get by and it was

very, very difficult for a woman, a young woman alone who had just immigrated, didn't know the

language, with a baby. Bill Benson: Right. And speaking of having a baby, tell us about this picture.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: This picture is my mother and me when I was probably about three years old.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, as you said, times were very difficult. It was the Depression and because it was so difficult, you would often go back and forth between your grandmother and

your mother, and you also spent some time in a foster home. What can you tell us about that?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Oh, very often I had to be in foster homes.

Like one family would take me for a few months or for a while since my mother had to work, and

it was very difficult to take care of a baby and try to work. And this is a picture of me

when I guess, about the same time as you saw the previous one with my mother. I was again about

three years old and this was taken at one of the foster places where I was for a short time.

When I got older my mother decided to put me in the foster, it was actually

a foster home where it was a Jewish foster home, where there were lots of Jewish

children. I was then about five and a half years old and I stayed there until the beginning of

the war when I was about eight, on and off. And I say on and off because sometimes my

mother couldn't pay the tuition so I had to get back to be with my mother, my grandmother.

So I had to be going back and forth very often. But mainly I was in this foster house and

life was not so much fun for a young child not having any siblings, and I was among the youngest

there, so it was difficult for me. Bill Benson: And tellus a little bit more about what that experience was like for you in the Jewish fosterhome

or boarding home that you were in at age five and a half. Rose-Helene Spreiregen: It was -- there were several things. First of all, I was very lonesome because

I didn't have siblings, I was among the youngest ones, and also on Sundays,

parents would come to visit their children. There was this beautiful large park and they would come

in and visit. My mother couldn't come very often to visit me on a Sunday, so in the

kitchen they asked for volunteers to help with doing dishes on Sunday afternoon, and I volunteered.

The problem was that you had to be six and I was five and a half, so I had to lie because

it was less painful to be in the kitchen not seeing all the other parents coming to visit children.

And one day my mother came to visit and the first thing I said—obviously, I was so happy to see her—but the first thing I said to her, I asked her, "How old am I exactly?" And she said, "Five and a

half." And I said, "If anyone asks you how old I am, please tell them I'm six!" I am not sure if

she understood why, but she didn't ask as farI can remember.

Bill Benson: And that meant it was okay for you to do the work in the kitchen. Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Yes, so Icould go back to drying the dishes in the kitchen because I was too young to do anythingelse.

So they only gave me dishes to dry. Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, World War II of course began September 1st, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.

Fearing German attacks you, your grandmother, and cousin Bernard relocated to the French countryside

while your mother remained in Paris. Wheredid the three of you go? And maybe start by telling us about this photograph.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Wellthe French authorities in Paris feared that there would be bombing and gas attacks like there were in the First World War, so they decided to

evacuate elder people and children out of Paris in a town. And we were evacuated in a place

called Savigny-sur-Braye, and we were there for quite a few months. We left, I guess, in September of 1939

and I was there until May 1940. We went to school, things were reasonably normal. We didn't

feel that there was a war, there was anything going on and we were too young, I guess, to understand.

I am here with my grandmother and my little cousin Bernard, and that's me when I was eight,

eight and a half or so. Bill Benson: Tell us just alittle bit about your cousin Bernard.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: My cousin Bernard was—we were very close to each other because

I didn't have any siblings and he didn't either. He was the son of my mother's brother

and we were a lot together, we did a lot together. Were in hiding together, we were evacuated together.

I was very, very close to him. We were very, very close. We always were.

Until unfortunately he died a few years ago of ALS and he was gone in 10 months.

Bill Benson: But you stayed close all that time. Rose-Helene Spreiregen: All the time, all the time. We were very, very close. When I

came to Paris, I always stayed with him. Itwas like my brother.

Bill Benson: Right. Rose-Helene, war came to France in May 1940 when Germany invaded France and other nearby countries.

As a result there was a mass exodus of people including your mother fleeing Paris for other

parts of France. What do you recall about the refugees that were passing through your town?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: What happened as the Germans started to invade the northern countries like

Belgium, The Netherlands, and then of course they started with the northern part of France. And

people were absolutely terrified and they started to flee. It was a horrible, horrible exodus.

And this picture you can see, people were just fleeing with what they had on horse

and wagons or bicycles or whatever. They piled up their belongings and you can see here

some dogs are under this big carriage. People are just absolutely terrified not knowing where they

were going, they were just trying to leave the cities where they were in. And it

happened that they were coming through, coming down south, they were coming to Savigny-sur-Braye.

They had absolutely nothing, so my grandmother would try to give them some water, some bread

or whatever we could give them. They were just going endlessly. It was absolutely

horrible to see this. If you have seen the news actually of Ukraine at the beginning,

it may ring a bell, you may see what I'm talking about. This is actually what I saw.

Bill Benson: Yeah. And as part of that exodus, of that mass exodus from Paris, included your mother and she joined

you in Savigny-sur-Braye and she was wounded. Tell us what happened.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: My mother came to visit us in May of 1940. It was a very unfortunate time because there were some bombings in the little

town when the Germans were starting to come down. And my mother got wounded by a shrapnel.

The doctors were gone in the town and she needed to be taken care of, so she

decided to get back to Paris and shetook me with her. And all these people

on the exodus were coming down, and we were trying to get back up to Paris. And

the journey was extremely, extremely difficult and dangerous also, because there were bombings

and there were fightings. It was usually, I think, German airplanes and British airplanes.

And once in a while as we were walking and trying to make our way on this narrow road, we had to take

shelter in the ditches while this was going on. And then when it was over we'd get back

on the road and people were starting to move again in whatever direction they were going.

Bill Benson: I'm just trying to visualize the extreme difficulty of clogged roads

with people going in one direction and there you and your mother are trying to make it. But you did make it. You got back to Paris and then when did your grandmother and your

cousin Bernard get back to Paris? Rose-Helene Spreiregen: My grandmother and my cousin Bernard came probably a couple of weeks later.

I can't remember exactly when they came back, but they came back after us obviously.

We had gone back during the exodus which was a total nightmare and so frightening

and everyone was so scared. But theycame back probably a couple of weeks later when things got a little more settled.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, France was then after that it was dividedinto two main zones. Germany occupied the north and

the Atlantic coastline while the south remained unoccupied. A French collaborationist government

known as Vichy France worked with the Germans and directly administered the southeastern

part of the country. With the Nazis in control of Paris, severe restrictions were imposed on Jews.

Tell us what you can about what that was like for you and your mother?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: After the Nazis occupied Paris and the northern part of France, Jews had to register with the

French police to say that they were Jews. Starting within just a very few months after they registered

lots of things started to become just absolutely impossible. Laws against the Jews were

enacted and things like we couldn't go in a park, we couldn't go to a restaurant, we couldn't

go to a movie theater, couldn't go to a theater, we couldn't have a telephone, we couldn't have—you name it, we just couldn't do anything. It had become so difficult. We had curfew at 6:00PM.

To go shopping with our ration tickets we only had one hour a day from 11 to 12,

and it became extremely difficult to get anything because the lines were very, very big even with

ration coupons, and by the time we—I would get sometimes the item I needed or wanted, itwas gone.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, tell us about the Star of David badge that you were forced to wear. Rose-Helene: As you see here it says "Juif" which means

Jew and all these Stars of David had to be sewn on the left side of our garments.

We couldn't pin them up, they had to be sewn. So it meant that in summer you wanted to wash

your blouse or your shirt or whatever, it had to be unsewn and then sewn up again. If you

were caught just pinning up your Star of David, you could be arrested. Of course and that's something

you didn't want to do because you had enough chances to be arrested in any other ways.

Bill Benson: Right. Rose-Helene, in the summer of 1942 the deportations of Jews really intensified with

large-scale systematic roundups and deportations. Your mother was warned of a roundup.

Tell us how she was warned and what you know about how she made her plans to get out of Paris.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: My mother apparently knew a friendly policeman who came to warn her the day before this roundup

that there would be this massive roundup, to just not stay in the apartment because that was too

dangerous. The roundups actually took place July 16 and July 17 of 1942 and actually a few days ago,

they had the commemoration of the 80 years of the roundups, the massive roundups of the Jews in Paris.

So my mother immediately tried to find someone to make a false papers.

And this is the last photo Ihave that she had made for this French ID paper. She found a couple of friends very quickly and they had to find someone—can't find—a smuggler.

Bill Benson: The smuggler, passeur.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: the smuggler to take them over to the free zone. And my mother had to leave with these peopleand of course we couldn't go with her

since she had absolutely no idea where she would end up. All she wanted is to

be in a free zone and then find a place and then we would be coming to join her.

Unfortunately it seems that the smuggler took the money from the little group and they were

betrayed and arrested and sent to Drancy where it was the holding camp near Paris before they were

deported. This is, I guess people had been arrested and spilling out of trucks getting to Drancy.

Bill Benson: Once your mother was arrested, what then happened to her?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: When my mother was arrested she was sent to Drancy, in this holding camp,

before she was sent to Auschwitz. In Drancy they would make up convoys of men and women

and people who had children and many had children, young children and older ones.

They were left behind to fend for themselves in Drancy. When they had enough children

they would make another convoy and they would all be packed up in these cattle cars

but every cattle car needed avolunteer to accompany the children.

Now apparently my mother volunteered to accompany one of these children and the

in the cattle cars. The way we learned about that is a few months later—I mean a few weeks later

is we had a very dear friend there who was deadly sick and she had tuberculosis and she was

released, sent home, where she actually died about three months later. And she saw my mother and

she told us what had happened otherwise we would never have known that she had volunteered with a

convoy of children. We also learned after the war that these convoys were, of course the convoys were

those wagons were closed, it was in the middle of summer, it was maybe four or five days to reach

Auschwitz. They had no food, they had no water, they had no facilities of any kind. And the people, the

children, all the volunteers who didn't die en route were gassed on arrival, and this we learned

after the war. So I guess my mother never had a chance to survive and she was only 31 years old.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, you, with your mother gone and what you learned about her being deported in the convoy,

you and your grandmother would then spend the next year 13 months in fact in your mother's

apartment in Paris under really severe conditions. Tell us what that was like.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: It was very difficult because when my mother was deported,

we decided, with my grandmother, to go live in the apartment since there was no one there. So

by bribing the concierge we would say, "If anyone comes, well, tell them that the

person who lived here has been deported and there is no one in the apartment." So we

went to live in my mother's apartment in July of 1942 and we stayed there until August 1943.

My grandmother never left the apartment, never for 13 months, and I had stopped going to school

in July of 1942 because children who were in school with the Star of David were picked up

and they were deported, so going to school was not an option anymore.

So I was in charge of doing all the things which needed to be done: go stand in line, get

whatever needed to be done outside the wall, that was for me to do and I was 12 years old.

I was actually 11. Bill Benson: 11. 11. Rose-Helene Spreiregen: So I had to stand in line. As I have said before, the lines were very long and we only had an hour

to do ourshopping. So sometimes I would stand in line and as

what I needed wasn't there anymore it had been sold, but the people in the line were not

very kind. They would talk among themselves why there was such a shortage of everything

because of course, the Jews were eating everything, never mind that most of them had been deported.

And they would turn to me, here I was a little girl standing in line with my Star of David

and I wish I had been able to hide it but I couldn't. And they would say to me, "You dirty Jew."

And this was the kind thing, when sometimes they would say to me, "You k___." And that was

really so scary and being so young I really didn't know exactly who I was yet and feeling that

these adults were saying these terrible things to me, maybe they had a point. Maybe I was no good.

And that was so horrible. Bill Benson: The immense burden of having to endure that, but yet you still had to go out and get the necessities like food.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: I had no choice. I had to stand in these lines. Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, your cousin

Bernard and his mother managed to make it out of Paris, and in August 1943, 13 months after it

was just you and your grandmother in the apartment, your grandmother decided it would be best for the two of you to leave as well. Tell us how the two of you escaped Paris and then where you went.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Yes. Well, at some point my grandmother decided in August of '43 that this was getting

really too dangerous, between people who were being arrested around us and the bombings, but it was

really getting to the point where we really had to leave Paris if we were going to try to survive.

The rest of the family had alreadybeen arrested and they were deported.

Never heard from them again. The only ones who were still around was my aunt and my cousin

who had managed to get to the free zone and actually had moved to different towns until

they ended up in Voiron, which was the southeast of Paris and also not that far from

Switzerland, actually. Voiron was about 15 miles from Grenoble if you know the area.

So my grandmother decided it was time to join her and we managed to get someone to make us false

papers. We got someone who was in the resistance who specialized actually in making false papers

for people people were trying to flee. I have no idea how we got hold of that person

And we got false papers, decided to go, that was in August '43. And we had to take a train overnight

which was another adventure, a big adventure, because the train was leaving after six in the

evening and besides we couldn't go with our Star of David because the laws against the Jews

among them didn't allow you to go any further than 25 kilometers out of Paris which is about

17 miles from Paris. So we had a wonderful neighbor who had a laundromat and he decided

to help us, take us to the train station at night because it was really so scary for the two of us.

And he took us with our two little suitcases. We left, as I said, two little suitcases not knowing if

it was going to be for a month or a year and also we didn't want to take a lot of luggage because

it would have been really way too conspicuous. So we went to the train station and

then we had to pass to a checkpoint. It was the German checkpoint and the French checkpoint.

The difficult part was, the scariest part, was that my grandmother who had become, according to her

French paper, French, didn't speak French that well and if she opened her mouth, it would be a giveaway.

So I decided in my wisdom, my 12 year old, that maybe it would be better to tell my grandmother to

make-believe that she was sleeping when we had the German policeman come to check

our papers and that's what we did. When the German policeman came in, I showed him the papers and

I said, "This is my grandmother here and she's sleeping." And I really can't remember if I said

to him, "Don't wake her up." Maybe. And he looked and checked, saw my grandmother, an old woman and me.

I was like a string bean and very small, and he gave me back the papers and he left.

And that was just wonderful but terrifying. But then we had to get to the next checkpoint

which was the French checkpoint when we got to the free zone and I had to do the

same thing. I had to explain to this policeman that that was my grandmother, she was asleep, and

here were the papers. And again he looked and every second was like torture, I was so terrified

and he gave me back the papers and he left and we had passed, but it took me hours I think after that—

I was so terrified, I was shaking. Idon't think I've ever been more terrified during the whole war than during this trip from Paris.

Bill Benson: And yet in the midst of that terror, you had the wisdom and the strength to do what you did and to concoct a way to get through safely

with your grandmother. Amazing. And then you do end up in this small village

where living conditions were exceptionallydifficult. Will you tell us what it was likefor you and your grandmother in Voiron?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: We arrived in Voiron to meet my aunt and my cousin,

and obviously we couldn't stay with her because they lived in a small place and also again,

we didn't want to be too conspicuous and we just couldn't stay with her. We had to find another

place. That was extremely difficult to find a place, to stay somewhere. And we found a place,

it was a warehouse where furniture had been stored for many years and it really didn't have anything. It had cold running

water and it had electricity and absolutely nothing else except lots and lots of mice.

So we had to find someone to lend us a mattress and a stove to be able to heat ourselves and to

cook and a few pots and pans. We needed really the minimum since we had absolutely nothing and

fortunately a neighbor of my aunt, who is here with me, was kind enough to lend us

a stove and a mattress and whatever we needed to start to be able to function slightly.

The stove, of course, we didn't have coal to heat it, so we had to go to the woods and walk

for several miles to bring back big huge branches and we got a hand saw. We had to saw everything

up in order to cook and to keep ourselves warm because that was the only way we could survive and

also we really didn't have much money so we had to be very enterprising and my aunt

found me a place to work and there was a tiny little grocery store

about maybe three miles from where we lived and they needed someone to run it.

The husband was a prisoner of war and she was really very sick with tuberculosis. She came

back and [inaudible], I don't know howhe didn't get her disease because she was really sick.

So I had to run this little place. Of course I didn't know anything about running a grocery store.

It was like 7-11 maybe. So I had to learn fast and the other thing I had to learn fast is,

since we lived about three miles away, I had no transportation of course,

and she kindly lent me a bicycle. I had never been on a bicycle before so I had to learn

fast how to ride a bicycle and to go back and forth. Plus at night there was really no light

except tiny little light from the bicycle and the roads were narrow and it was a modernist place.

It really was quite frightening for a young child. And in the morning when I came back with

my bicycle I would stop to get reassortment boxes of something that I had with all the

tickets, the coupons, that I had collected, and I worked there as a child taking care of this grocery.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, following the Allied invasion of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Voiron was

liberated in August of 1944. Tell us what liberation was like for you. Do you remember

when you thought, "We're liberated," and what did that mean?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: It really meant freedom. It meant that we wouldn't be scared all the time. We were lucky

to be liberated in August, end of August, 1944 by the American Army and I must say that it was

something wonderful because they gave us some crackers, some chocolate and it was just—

they gave us some chewing gum. I'd never even heard of chewing gum, I had no idea what chewing gum was

but it meant freedom. It meant thatmaybe things were going to start being normal againand that we may be able to get back to Paris.

Bill Benson: Andas it turned out you couldn't get back to Paris as quickly as you thought. Why was that?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: No. Mygrandmother was hoping to be able to get back right away but unfortunately the trucks and thetrains had been bombed so much

that there were not that many, and it became extremely difficult to get back and many people actually wanted to get back.

So we couldn't get back to Paris before November of 1944. At that point I went back to school

immediately and tried to catch up after two and a half years of being away from school. Fortunately

I had been a good student, so I was one year ahead of the program when I stopped going to school and

I managed to get my high school diploma in a few months which was a miracle. We also learned when we

came back that my grandmother's apartment had been looted and there was nothing left in it including

of course things which were very important to her: her prayer book that she had brought back

from Poland, photographs of the family, and my prize possession of course that I had been given

as a prize in 1939 and my book was gone. And that was really very sad, but of course

many other things had been taken from the apartment and it was already rented to

other people despite the fact that we were paying rent the whole time that we were gone.

Bill Benson: At some point Rose-Helene, you ended up moving into your mother's apartment and I believe you were living on your own at the age of 16.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Yes. I couldn't, unfortunately, go back to school because I couldn't afford to do it. I needed to pay for

my upkeep, the rent, the utilities, and so on. By that time my grandmother finally got her apartment back

and she went back to her apartment. There was no point in not getting back to an apartment. It

was absolutely impossible to find an apartment, so she went back to her apartment and I stayed in my

mother's apartment, still hoping that maybe she'd come back. And by the age of 16 I was living by on

my own. I had found a place to work and go to night school since I couldn't go to normal school.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, when did you give up hope that your mother would return?

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: After a while, you know, people were starting—they were coming back one or two at a time and

the flow stopped completely. And eventually we realized that there was no way that she was

coming back and no one else was coming back. That was a given. And then we started to of

course hear what happened and what camps, of Auschwitz, which of course we didn't know before.

When people were sent, were deported, we were told that they would be sending east to work

for the war effort but we had no idea that there were these killing camps that people

were going to be murdered. And also I learned about the fact that people who had

volunteered for example, like my mother, would be murdered on arrival if they were not dead

when they got there. So there was not a ghost of a chance that I would ever see her again.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, you and your grandmother of course, you survived together. Did she remain in Paris? And just tell us a little bit more about her after the war.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Yes she remained in Paris and where would she go? There was no place to go.

This is a picture of my grandmother and me the day I got married in

October 1961, and then I left Paris actually the next day. But that was

one of the pictures of my grandmother. She was 80 years old, very petite, very tiny. And

it was actually heartbreaking to have to leave her because I had found someone, a wonderful young

man who I married, but unfortunately he was American so I had to follow him to Washington and that was very sad.

Bill Benson: But you did,of course, see your grandmother. Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Oh yes, I saw my grandmother every year. I would go to visit her for a couple of weeks, two or three weeks, and

of course I wrote to her every week, so we had an exchange. There was no email and there was

no telephones really, so we were in touch every week, no matter what.

Bill Benson: Rose-Helene, I have just one more question for you and that is: in the face ofrising global antisemitism, please tell us why

you continue to share your first-hand account of what you experienced during the Holocaust.

Rose-Helene Spreiregen: Well, with rising antisemitism as one of the many, many growing threats to democracy today, historically it has been a telling indicator and often an early warning sign of those threats.

It is the reason it must be known and understood. Being a shy person it has been very difficult to tell my story, but I must. Most of the survivors like me will soon be gone.

I tell my story because well more than half of Americans know nothing of the Holocaust, the systemic murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children, then a third of the world's Jewish population.

I tell my story for the six million who never had the chance to tell theirs.

This conversation has been edited in length for educational and classroom use. View the full First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors program here.