The younger of two children, Irene was born to Jewish parents in the industrial city of Mannheim. Her father, a wounded German army veteran of World War I, was an interior decorator. Her mother was a housewife. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Irene's older brother, Berthold, was attending public school. Three-year-old Irene was at home with her mother.
1933-39: Celebrating Jewish holidays with all of Irene's aunts and uncles was really nice. One of her favorite places was the zoo; she especially liked the monkeys. When the Nazis forced Jewish children out of public school, she began attending a Jewish school. Irene was "a daddy's girl," and her father would take her home from school on his bike. After the Nazis burned their school, her older brother left for safety in Britain--she was too young to go with him.
1940-44: In 1940, when Irene was 10, her family was sent to Gurs and then Rivesaltes, terrible camps in southern France. The food was awful. The Jewish Children's Aid Society took Irene away and placed her in a Catholic convent along with 13 other Jewish girls. She became Irene Fanchet and studied under Sister Theresa. One day, the SS came to their convent looking for hidden German-Jewish children. One of the girls, who was fluent in French, did the talking for everyone else. It worked. The Germans left, and they were safe.
Thirteen-year-old Irene was freed by Allied troops in July 1944. After being transferred to several children's homes in France, she immigrated to the United States in 1947.