With false French papers, Rose-Helene Spreiregen, age 12, and her grandmother fled German-occupied France on an overnight train. “Make believe you are sleeping. I will take care of it,” Rose-Helene told her grandmother, who spoke little French. “If she opened her mouth, we were sure to be arrested.” Rose-Helene was confronted by German police in the occupied zone and again by the French police in the free zone. Only after Rose-Helene and her grandmother crossed safely into the free zone could the little girl give way to her emotions. “I was shaking for hours that this could have been the end of us.”
Rose-Helene Spreiregen (nee Bester) was born on March 6, 1931 in Paris, France. Rose-Helene was raised by her mother, Rivka, and her grandmother, Sarah. Both had immigrated to France from Warsaw, Poland in the late 1920’s. Due to family hardships, Rose-Helene was sent to a Jewish boarding school when she was just five years old. During her brief visits home, Rose-Helene often overheard her mother talking about the imminent war with Germany. Shortly before World War II began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Rose-Helene returned home to Paris.
Fearing gas attacks from the Germans, children and the elderly were evacuated to the countryside; among them, Rose-Helene, Sarah, and Rose-Helene’s cousin, Bernard. The family found refuge in Savigny-sur-Braye where Rose-Helene and Bernard attended school.
In May 1940, Germany invaded France. To avoid the occupiers, crowds of people fled to the countryside. Sarah gave the refugees passing through Savigny-sur-Braye what food and water she could spare. During an air raid by the Nazis, Rivka, who was in route to visit her family in Savigny-sur-Braye, was wounded in the foot. She decided to return to Paris to seek medical treatment, taking Rose-Helene with her.
Later that year, antisemitic legislation was instituted in France, requiring all Jews to register with local authorities and wear a yellow Star of David on their garments at all times. Other restrictive measures were also passed. By the summer of 1942, it became unsafe for Rose-Helene to attend school, as Jewish children were being arrested while in class and deported with their families. When a local police officer informed Rivka about an impending roundup of Jews, she fled south to Vichy France shortly after warning the family. She was arrested at the demarcation line and sent to Drancy transit camp for deportation to Auschwitz.
Following her mother’s arrest, Rose-Helene and Sarah moved into Rivka’s now vacant apartment in Paris. For an entire year, Sarah did not leave the apartment for fear of arrest and deportation, which required Rose-Helene to assume many adult responsibilities. In August 1943, after hearing rumors of yet another round-up, Sarah decided they needed to leave Paris. Using forged identification papers, Sarah and Rose-Helene fled to the unoccupied zone and found refuge in the village of Voiron. Despite her youth, Rose-Helene found work managing a small grocery store. Sarah bartered with the local residents for goods and Rose-Helene supplemented their rations by collecting fallen chestnuts and gathering branches for fuel.
In August 1944, the Allies liberated Voiron. Sarah wanted to return to Paris immediately, but due to transportation shortages, the two were unable to return until November. In her absence, Sarah’s apartment had been looted and rented to others, despite the fact her rent was being paid the entire time she was away. After a year of contention with the French courts, she was able to reoccupy her apartment. By age sixteen, Rose-Helene was living alone in Rivka’s apartment, anxiously awaiting her mother’s return. Unfortunately, Rivka never returned as she had been murdered at Auschwitz.
Rose-Helene enrolled in school, graduated, and obtained a job in a French banking and investment firm, where she became an expert in gold coin authentication. In 1961, Rose-Helene married an American and moved to the Washington, D.C. area with her husband, Paul. She is a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.