'I was so scared when the Gestapo held us at gunpoint'

By Jonathan Kalmus, January 26, 2012
Helen Stein holding a family photo taken in France before the war

Helen Stein holding a family photo taken in France before the war

Helen Stein was 13 when the Gestapo interrogated her at gunpoint.

"One pointed his revolver towards me. I will never forget. I was asked my name, my address and who organised the journey. And after each question: 'Are you Jewish?' I told them my real name. I told them, 'I'm frightened.'"

Helen clutched her sister Renee, 10, and brother Joe, nine, as she was questioned in a Nazi border prison. The three children were among a group of 27 captured attempting to get across the Swiss border from France in June, 1944.

When war broke out, her parents had been evacuated to a small farming town in central France. Persecution intensified after Nazi occupation and Helen's father, barred from most occupations, worked on a farm for food rations. At times the family went into hiding, avoiding the fate of neighbours, friends and family who were sent to concentration camps.

"I would tell my parents: 'I don't want to eat anything, I want to send it to my great-aunt and uncle.' They were wealthy, but were sent to a barracks with 1,000 others with nothing to eat.

"In May 1944, my parents took the agonising decision to send their three children to Switzerland to save us. We got false papers - my name was Helen Blanchar.

"We were hidden in a convent in Lyon. The sister said you can be saved if you convert. I said to her I won't be saved from the Nazis because new converts don't count. She said at least your soul would be saved."

After days of travel, the van carrying the children stopped five minutes from the Swiss border.

"Freedom was near. I lifted the canvas of the van. I saw a black Citroen with German policemen and alsatians. We were caught. It was pandemonium."

By dawn, the children were inmates at Pax prison in Annemasse along with their guide, 21-year-old Marianne Cohn. The youngest was just two-years-old.

"We sometimes heard the screams. Marianne was taken to be questioned by the Gestapo. She came back with swollen eyes, a red puffed face.

"I see her face still," Ms Stein recalled, staring into the distance.

The town's Vichy-appointed mayor appealed for the release of children under 14. The older ones were shot by panicked Nazis shortly before their defeat, along with Marianne Cohn, who was later credited with saving 200 children.

Now a great-grandmother, Ms Stein lives in Prestwich, Manchester, close to sister Renee.

She continues to share her story with groups of schoolchildren.

Last updated: 10:57am, January 27 2012