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Paula Rivkin

Nationality: Austrian
Location: Austria • Buffalo • Cambridge • England • London • Missouri • New York • St. Louis • United States of America • Vienna
Experience During Holocaust: Escaped the Holocaust • Family Survived • Was a Child During the Holocaust

Mapping Paula's Life

Click on the location markers to learn more about Paula. Use the timeline below the map or the left and right keys on your keyboard to explore chronologically. In some cases the dates below were estimated based on the oral histories.

“We got to the school and the school was in flames... my mother put me under her coat and we walked home. And I always felt that there must have been even worse things on the way back, because she wouldn’t let me see them.” - Paula Rivkin

Read Paula's Oral History Transcripts

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Tape 1 - Side 1

STERNBERG: November 15, 1989. This is Robert Sternberg interviewing Rebbetzen Paula Rivkin. I’m just going to ask you a couple of questions and we’ll get into talking in this way. Where were you born?
RIVKIN: I was born in Vienna, Austria.
RIVKIN: Do I have to tell the year?
STERNBERG: No, you do not have to tell the year at all. The idea of what happened during the war will come out a little bit later. Tell us something, though, about your family, the family history, the family you were born into.
RIVKIN: I was born into a very distinguished aristocratic family of great scholars and rabbis. My maternal grandfather who was – with whom my parents and I were living at the time in Vienna, Rabbi David Frankel, left his hereditary position as Chief Rabbi of a city in Poland, Lemberg, and came to Vienna to start a business. The business was the collection and the bibliography of ancient Jewish manuscripts and books, and it turned out that with time he became the world’s foremost expert on Incunabula, which are books that were the first ones off the press. And he specialized in Jewish volumes of this kind. He and my father traveled to North Africa and Syria, Turkey, in a search for rare volumes. They had a business which included major personalities like Sholom Asch, the Seminary in New York, Harvard, Columbia and the Library of Congress in Washington. And, as a matter of fact, this factor was a very important factor in why we were saved because my grandfather was in America at the time that Hitler came into Vienna and he devoted the next few years of his life to bringing his family out. At the time that Hitler came into Vienna, I was approximately five years old and I was going to the kindergarten of the day school in Vienna. I lived on 27 Taberstrasse in the Zweiten Bezirg in a building which is still in existence, and in its elegance is comparable to the Dakota in New York City. I had an interesting experience later on in that I met the Jews that are living in the house now. They are Jews that came after the war and they were told that a famous rabbi lived there. We were also very comfortably situated in terms of affluence and I’m saying this because after we left Vienna, the situation was never the same and my parents had to make, I think, a great accommodation to the change in their lifestyle, especially my mother, I would say. And they did so with great grace. Do you want me to start out with my –
STERNBERG: Yes, but before we do that, let’s take a couple steps back and talk a little bit more about your father going from Lemberg or Lvov –
RIVKIN: My grandfather.
STERNBERG: Your grandfather going from Lvov to Vienna. Why did he choose Vienna to start his business?
RIVKIN: Because Vienna was the Torah center of the world at that time. All the Hasidishe rebbes were there at that time. It was the flower of European civilization at that time. It – Vienna was the center of Torah Judaism at that time.
STERNBERG: That’s interesting. You don’t hear Vienna spoken of in those terms, “cultural Judaism,” you know, in a secular sense. You always hear about it as having been a very cultured environment, but you don’t think of Vienna necessarily in a Torah sense.
RIVKIN: By the way, I assume that was his reason. I don’t know it for sure. We never discussed it.
STERNBERG: But it was a Torah center. And what was the name of the school that you attended? Was it a Bais Yaakov school or –
RIVKIN: I really don’t know. I’m, it – you know I’m just kind of borderline – I’m old enough to remember some things but not old enough to remember other things. And one of the dynamics that occurred in my family after we came to America is that we never discussed anything in regard to the Holocaust. And it was just something that I understood was so sensitive to my parents that I never brought it up. So what I don’t remember or was told to me immediately at that time, I don’t know.
STERNBERG: Okay, then your father and your mother were also both born in Vienna. Is that right?
RIVKIN: No, they were born in Poland. But after they married they came – my father became a partner with my grandfather in the business and they moved to Vienna. And I would say that was probably 10 years before I was born.
STERNBERG: Now the tenure of their business was to acquire these old manuscripts and then to sell them to museums or –
RIVKIN: Uh-huh.
STERNBERG: Okay. And this –
RIVKIN: And if you go to the Library of Science or to the 42nd Street Library in New York, you’ll find the catalogue…and one of the other –
STERNBERG: What was the name of the business?
RIVKIN: It was David Frankel Incunabula, and one other interesting thing is, that when I met Agnon in Israel on my first visit in ’68, first of all he knew not only this grandfather, but he knew his father, my great grandfather who was the Chief Rabbi of Lvov. And he used to buy – he used to be one of the customers. And in several of his books he pays reference to my grandfather.
STERNBERG: Um-hum. These are sefarim that he wrote? Oh, his books, Agnon’s books.
RIVKIN: Agnon’s books, yeah.
STERNBERG: Interesting. So this was the nature of their business and that’s what they were engaged in and that necessitated a great deal of travel as well. Did it also enable them to have contacts in places like the United States and other places which might have proved to be helpful later on?
RIVKIN: Maybe. Again, I don’t know. First of all, it was really a godsend that my grandfather – by the way, they did travel. They traveled a lot. They traveled all over the world at a time when people were not traveling as they are doing now.
RIVKIN: And it just happened to be our great fortune that he was in the United States at the most propitious time for him to be, in terms of our future. And as a matter of fact, he was here on business and the family started crating the library immediately to send it over to the United States. And some of the crates had left already, but a great part – I would say the great majority of the library did not make it, but was in the process of being packed when Eichmann came personally to confiscate what was really a tremendous find for the Nazis.
STERNBERG: We’ll come to that in more detail in a little bit. I just want to talk a little bit more about the onslaught of Nazism in Vienna and I’m wondering (A) what kinds of things – (you were very young at the time) – you might remember. And some of the things perhaps that your parents talked about in terms of this earlier period when Nazism first began to take hold. What things did they experience? What things did they see? How did that translate itself into what they saw the future evolving into? Were there – you know what I’m getting at.
RIVKIN: Yeah. Actually I don’t remember having any conversation or even hearing conversation, but I think that the fact that they were sending the library over before Eichmann came, and I think actually before Hitler marched into Vienna, indicates what their feeling of the future was, although they continued to stay.
STERNBERG: So in point of fact – this is important – so in point of fact, they began to crate the library and send it out of Vienna before the Anschluss?
RIVKIN: That’s right, but just barely before because if they had done it earlier, they could have managed to send everything out. So I tend to think that it was just barely before, because they got caught in the middle of the sending. And it was such a large library that –
STERNBERG: How large was the library, from your own recollections or discussions?
RIVKIN: I’ll show you. I have the catalogues that my grandfather put out every year and which of themselves are collectors’ items now. I would say that he had easily 100,000 volumes.
STERNBERG: Was this in your home or –
RIVKIN: Yes, it was in our home.
STERNBERG: So the business was really –
RIVKIN: In the home.
STERNBERG: Just like in many European situations.
RIVKIN: That’s right.
STERNBERG: My mother-in-law, by the way, had the exact same thing in Vilna. Her father was a lawyer and his office was in their home. But – so the collection was housed right in your home, this 100,000 volumes.
RIVKIN: That’s right.
STERNBERG: What kind of things specifically do you recollect or recollect your parents discussing happening when the Nazis first took over Austria, in terms of how life changed for Jews? What things did you observe?
RIVKIN: I don’t know for whatever reason, whether I don’t remember or whether I wasn’t aware, but I think that possibly the first thing that I noticed was that we were losing our household staff.
STERNBERG: How large was your household staff?
RIVKIN: About four. And then, toward the end, we had one. And that’s probably – you know, I never thought about it, but that’s probably the first indication that I got that something – what I remember – I think the other things that I remember, I remember a little bit later. I remember the morning after Kristallnacht which you heard me talk about last year.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. And we’ll talk about that again.
RIVKIN: The big change in my life came with Eichmann coming to the house because my father and my uncles fled immediately. And they left my mother and an aunt and me. Because Eichmann had said to them on the first day that he came, he said, “If you men want to live, then you will not be here when I return tomorrow.” And they left. So that was a very, very big change in my life. I knew – I was not there the first time that he came, but that was the very biggest change in my life, because all of a sudden there were things going on right inside the house.
STERNBERG: Okay. Let’s still take a couple steps back though and come back to the leaving of your staff. First of all, how many were you in your family in the house?
RIVKIN: There was my grandfather, two uncles and an aunt, my father, my mother and myself.
STERNBERG: So you’re an only child?
RIVKIN: Right.
STERNBERG: Okay. And the staff, what roles did they play? What were their jobs?
RIVKIN: They were not connected with the business in any way. They were domestic staff.
STERNBERG: Was any of them charged with taking care of you or doing anything for you?
RIVKIN: Yeah, I think that one of them was charged with taking care of me and I remember – I think that is probably my first memory, when she left.
STERNBERG: Was there a relationship between you and she?
RIVKIN: Not that I remember. I remember feeling sorry that she had left because I liked her, but it wasn’t a very – but either I don’t remember or I don’t want to remember, but I don’t know.
STERNBERG: Um-hum. Because often that might have been an indicator of things to be if that relationship would have changed. So the staff started to leave before the Anschluss? Afterwards?
RIVKIN: Afterwards.
STERNBERG: Afterwards. Did anything else change in your household and in terms of the people around you? Did you find them doing things differently or saying things differently from the way they’d been before?
RIVKIN: I don’t remember. Maybe I was younger than five. I don’t know. I don’t remember any of that. It’s really interesting to me that my memory of Vienna is mainly of the bad things, although I do remember the apartment. I kind of remember it somewhat. By the way, this summer I was going to go back. Did I tell you that I didn’t go?
STERNBERG: You haven’t ever been back, have you?
RIVKIN: No. I had always wanted to go back and this summer the Rabbi and I went back to Switzerland and Vienna. And on the night before we were supposed to go back to Vienna, when I was in Zurich, I told my husband I didn’t want to go. And I no longer want to go.
STERNBERG: I can understand that.
RIVKIN: So I have a feeling there must be a lot of stuff that I’m not remembering and I don’t want to remember it.
RIVKIN: Because I figure that it’s been some 50 years since then and if I’ve been functioning and doing all right, then I want to leave those doors closed. And that’s one of the things that I want to do here. So I kind of want to move away from that –
STERNBERG: Well then let’s move on. I understand that. Let’s move on then and let’s move on to Kristallnacht. Tell me about the things that you saw. Now did Eichmann visit before Kristallnacht or after?
RIVKIN: I don’t know. Later on I’ll show you an article and we’ll look it up, because this was written about in the Yiddish paper, so we will have the dates there. I don’t know, I don’t remember. But you’ll be able to substantiate it later.
STERNBERG: Okay. Shall we talk about Kristallnacht first or Eichmann’s visit first?
RIVKIN: Come to think of it, Eichmann’s visit was first.
RIVKIN: Because my father was not around when it happened. I told you that the first day when Eichmann came, I wasn’t home. Oh, the first day that Eichmann came, I wasn’t at home. I was at school. And I have an uncle living in New York who’s the only one living of that generation, and he credits Eichmann in a perverse kind of way of saving their lives, because he told them that if they wanted to save their lives, they should leave. So one uncle went – I think that initially they all went to Trieste, because they no longer had passports.
STERNBERG: Oh, so they didn’t leave Austria legally. They left –
RIVKIN: They were passlos – you know it was, you know, without passports. They had to go to Trieste and then from there, one uncle went to Turkey and found his way to the United States. One uncle was able to get to England, which was also very significant, because that’s how we got to England later. And my father wound up in France, wandering around illegally and was imprisoned by French, couldn’t get into England and wandered around for quite a number of years in France. So that was, I would say, the very first really big thing that I noticed. That was a very big difference, to see – and on the second day that my father left and I know that they left with nothing. They just ran. And the feeling at that –
STERNBERG: Your grandfather was in the States at that time?
RIVKIN: Yeah, um-hum. The feeling at that time was that women and children were less –
STERNBERG: Less vulnerable.
RIVKIN: Uh-hum. So my mother remained with her sister and with me. And the next day, Eichmann returned and he continued his work of confiscating the library and my mother had made a very serious mistake in judgment. She had not thought the library was going to be vulnerable and she had put her jewelry behind the books in the library. So at that time, my mother lost her jewelry and for the rest of her life, she really never had very much after that. She had her wedding ring and I bought her a string of pearls much later. But she had no jewelry after that. And at that time, I came home from school and I was very blonde-haired and very Aryan looking, and Eichmann, you know, only had boys. And he was very attracted to me and told my mother that he would like to adopt me. And my mother, who was a very spunky little woman, of four foot, 11, told him that he was making a grave mistake, that I’m 100% Jewish. My lineage was documented all the way back. And he rescinded his invitation. And after that, just to be on the safe side – my mother was really smart – just to be on the safe side, we moved in with one of her aunts, who lived in a less prominent neighborhood and less subject for interest than we were in our location. Although she never told me this, I assume she did so because she wanted to protect me. And I really think, when I think back about my mother, I think that she was, on a number of instances, really made very important decisions that saved my life. So then we – I think we did move back to the apartment a bit later and then I do remember things that were happening. I remember old people and crippled people who were forced to wash the sidewalks and who were harassed terribly. I remember that my mother had to stand in line for food and one of the most traumatic things that happened was that my mother at that time got rheumatic fever and by that time we had no staff. It was just my mother, my aunt and me. And she went to a Nazi doctor and for really absolutely no reason at all, the doctor extracted all of her teeth. And it was really – she had healthy teeth. There was no reason for the extractions except whatever – a kind of treatment for Jews. And I remember these things. At this point I’m beginning to really be aware of the situation. And it affected me so badly that when I was a youngster and my mother made an appointment for me to go to the dentist, I used to run away until the time of the appointment was over because I kinda felt that they were gonna pull out all of my teeth. And I really didn’t go to a dentist on a regular basis until I was about 17 or 18. Uh, the next thing that I remember is Kristallnacht. I mean, I’m not saying it happened after this. This is –
STERNBERG: Your recollection, um-hum.
RIVKIN: I don’t remember Kristallnacht because I was probably sleeping. Oh, by the way, I just remembered one other thing. I do remember when Hitler marched in very early. We looked out through the windows and we saw it.
STERNBERG: You saw Hitler marching through Vienna?
RIVKIN: Yeah, yeah. We did. I want to tell you that I’m not going to be able to go much farther because it’s so bad.
STERNBERG: I understand.
RIVKIN: I’ll just go through Kristallnacht, just to get it over with.
STERNBERG: Okay. Let’s do that and then we’ll see how you’re doing and maybe we can come back to a couple of things.
RIVKIN: Okay. Do you want to go back to a couple of things now?
STERNBERG: No. I just wanted to sort of get a word in about Eichmann. Eichmann obviously did not personally visit the homes of every Jew that fell under his jurisdiction. Why was your family designated for that to happen?
RIVKIN: Because, because of the library.
STERNBERG: Because of the library.
RIKIN: Because the library was a treasure house for them in the same sense that if they went to a home where they collected fine art and they confiscated the fine art, because these were one of a kind pieces.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. So now he was put in charge at that time the same way in Hungary, how he was put in charge of –
RIVKIN: Because he posed as someone who knew something about Judaism, which really was not true.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum, and that’s why he was sent. He came alone to your house?
RIVKIN: No, he came with some men who –
RIVKIN: With SS and they packed the rest of the stuff and took everything away.
STERNBERG: So he came and it was all done in one day.
RIVKIN: I would say at least two days.
STERNBERG: That they were there.
RIVKIN: Because I know of two days, but maybe more.
STERNBERG: Was he there both days?
RIVKIN: Yes. This was a very, very important action for them.
STERNBERG: And the whole thing took place then over a three day period. He arrived the day that the men were still in the house. He told them what he told them and also told the family what he was there for and what he intended to do.
RIVKIN: He started doing it immediately.
STERNBERG: He started doing it immediately. How did your family respond to that? What do you remember of that? Were people – were you all simply scared? Did you say anything in response to it? What do you recall of that? Nothing?
RIVKIN: Nothing, nothing. (VERY SOFTLY)
STERNBERG: Let’s go on to Kristallnacht.
RIVKIN: Well Kristallnacht – I don’t even know. I’m not sure that I was really aware of Kristallnacht on Kristallnacht. I was aware of Kristallnacht the morning after Kristallnacht. But I have a feeling that my mother – I have a very strong feeling that my mother knew, because – I don’t know how I usually got to school. Maybe there was still a maid that used to take me to school. But on that day, she took me to school.
STERNBERG: Your mother.
RIVKIN: Uh-huh. And on the way there I saw some terrible things.
STERNBERG: Now that was unusual for your mother to take you to school. What were some of the things you saw?
RIVKIN: I saw people being tortured and hurt in the street.
STERNBERG: In what ways?
RIVKIN: From what I remember, it was a lot of glass and there were people cleaning up the streets and they were not young and healthy people. They were old and debilitated people, cripples that were being made to do this work. And, anyway, we got to the school and the school was in flames and the principal was standing by the fence, and he said to the parents and the children, he said, “You will have to go home, because I can no longer take any responsibility for your children.” At that point, my mother put me under her coat and we walked home. And I always felt that there must have been even worse things on the way back, because she wouldn’t let me see them. And in a sense, even being under the coat was a traumatic thing although she meant it the best way, because it left a lot of room for fantasy of what was going on outside of the coat. That’s really all I want to talk about today. I’m sorry.
STERNBERG: No, no, no. That’s quite all right.
(End of Session)
(TAPE IS NOW ON) This is Robert Sternberg. The date today is October 30, 1990, and I’m interviewing Rebbitzen Rivkin for the second time. Rebbitzen, I wanted to ask you first of all, to go back a little bit talking about Eichmann’s visit where he, together with people who were there, were confiscating all of these books in the library. Tell us a little bit more about what you observed happening at that time.
RIVKIN: I’m not sure that I remember observing it. In other words, I’m not sure whether I observed it or it was told to me and I feel that I observed it. You know, I just can – I don’t know whether what I’m telling you is the result of having observed it myself or having been told this later. The first time when Eichmann came, the first time he came to the house, and he came because he regarded himself as some kind of a Jewish expert, although in truth he was not. And he came to the house when I was not present, when I was in school. Present in the house were my father, my two uncles, my mother and my aunt. And he came to confiscate this library because it contained some of the top treasures of Hebrew printing in the world. And he came and he asked – my mother tells the story in the article that I’ll show you. My mother tells that he asked her for the particular edition of the Shas which is the edition of the Talmud, because it was a very rare edition, and because he felt that only someone who was really knowledgeable would know that there was this specific Shas.
STERNBERG: What Shas was it, do you recall?
RIVKIN: No, but it will be named in the article. You’ll be able to fill in. Do you read Yiddish?
RIVKIN: Okay. And he was there, and he and his Gestapo men started getting the books together. In truth, the family had already started to pack the books and had sent, I would say, maybe a third of the books to America.

Tape 1 - Side 2

My grandfather was Rabbi David Frankel. He had been the Chief Rabbi of a city in Poland. The city was Husyatin, which was a hereditary position which he had inherited from his grandfather and his father. But he decided that he was going to go into the area of rare Jewish books. And when I mean “rare,” I’m talking the oldest, either manuscripts of the great sages or the first books that came off the print in the 13th and 14th century, and then rare books after that. The most valuable of all, of course, being the hand manuscripts and the first books that were off the press in the 13th and 14th century which is called Incunabula.
STERNBERG: Now these were just Jewish books. Is that right?
RIVKIN: Right. And he and my father traveled all through the world and most specifically in the Mid-East – Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, looking for old manuscripts. And they did this, I would say probably in the late ‘20s or the early ‘30s, and maybe middle ‘30s too. And he had a reputation all over the world and he traveled to do business. He traveled frequently to America to do business with the Jewish Theological Seminary, with the Library of Congress, with Columbia, with Harvard. He did business with the Vatican. He did business with individuals that I know of like Sholom Asch and the Lubavitcher rebbes who had a very fine library that was in – that had publicity a couple of years ago. They bought their books from my grandfather. And, anyway, he was in America and when he ascertained what the situation was, he remained in America and he spent the next few years trying to get the family out and he did rescue all his children and their families and brought them to America. But at this time he was in America and he decided that he was not going to return to Vienna and the family started crating the library. They had already started to crate the library when Eichmann arrived and the article that I’ll give to you will tell you that Eichmann subsequently left with 39 large crates of very, very valuable books. We don’t know what happened to the books. We don’t believe that they were destroyed, because they were works of art, but they were confiscated and we were never compensated for them either. My mother lost some other things because she felt – before Eichmann came, she felt that the safest place for her jewelry would be behind the books. So when they confiscated the library, they simultaneously confiscated her jewelry. When Eichmann came that first day, when I was not present, he told the men in the family that he was going to return the next day with the Gestapo to pick up whatever, because it was a lot to take and there was a lot to pack, and he would be back. And he advised them that they should not be there, my father and my two uncles should not be there when he returned the next day with the Gestapo. And at that time I do remember that the feeling was that men were in much greater danger than women and children. And so my father and my two uncles left immediately. They left that night. I think that they all started out by going to Trieste because by this time, and this is another thing that I can show you, they had papers as “stateless.” They lost their citizenship and Trieste was a free city, so they had access to Trieste. Subsequently one uncle made it to London, one uncle made it to Turkey and then to America, and my father got into France where he wandered for several years without papers and tried to get out and couldn’t, and was imprisoned, and then finally made it to London. But, back to Eichmann – that night they left. And left behind in Vienna was my mother, my aunt and myself. The next day when Eichmann came, I was home. And I do think – you know, now that I think about it, I do think that I remember. I do think I remember the Gestapo. And it was a very, very frightening experience and possibly one of the most frightening experiences and most intriguing as well, was that Eichmann was very taken by me. He was very charmed and I was a child that looked very much like an Aryan child. I was very light. I was blonde. I had blue eyes, very fair skin, and I was a pretty child. And he told my mother that he wanted to adopt me. And, as we know, he had only boys. And my mother told him, because he felt that maybe I wasn’t Jewish, or I wasn’t all Jewish – my mother had been older when she had me, so maybe he thought I was adopted. I don’t know. And my mother had been close to 40 when she had me. And my mother told him that I was Jewish all the way back, all the way back. And he kind of lost interest and then just to make absolutely sure that there wouldn’t be any mixup or mess up on this, we moved in with my mother’s aunts in an entirely different neighborhood because my mother was kind of worried that he might still be interested in me. And that’s really all I know about Eichmann.
STERNBERG: Let’s just come back on a couple of things about that incident. Did this occur before the Kristallnacht or after it? Do you recall approximately when it occurred that they came to get the library?
RIVKIN: I think it was either March or May.
STERNBERG: Of 1938? Or was it after the Kristallnacht?
RIVKIN: I think it was before.
STERNBERG: Okay. So it was after the Anschluss but before the Kristallnacht in 1938.
RIVKIN: I don’t know but we can check that out also through the article.
STERNBERG: Through the article. And the other thing – well, the few things too I wanted to ask you about. The collection – you say that approximately a third of it was saved and sent to America. Is it now in the Jewish Theological Seminary Library? Where is it now, this portion that was saved?
RIVKIN: The portion that was saved – it was a business. I spoke about this recently with my uncle. It was a library, but it was a business as well, so these books have been sold unless pieces are owned by various members of family. But we do have a catalogue which I just saw recently. I never knew that it existed. My grandfather had published a catalogue of everything that he had in his possession each year. And I always thought that the last catalogue was published in Vienna right before this happened, but I’m kind of working with a lawyer on this and we recently discovered that my grandfather published a catalogue here in America, too, with the things that had been saved. And it was just a mere fraction of what he had, but you can tell from it, the stuff was just incredible, most incredible.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. And he had obviously materials that predated printing and original manuscripts of all sorts and things of this sort.
RIVKIN: Just unbelievable. I’m gonna bring you – if you turn it off, I’ll see if I can find one catalogue.
STERNBERG: Do you happen to remember what Eichmann’s title or position was at that time? Why was it he that was sent to your house?
RIVKIN: Because – again, I’m referring you to the article – because he was considered to be some kind of a Jewish expert. He had picked up some Yiddish words or some Hebrew words in the course of his work, and he was in charge – he was some kind of a cultural expert, regarded as some kind of a cultural expert by the Nazis. And he headed something like that.
STERNBERG: A cultural type of –
STERNBERG: – department.
RIVKIN: Yeah, yeah.
STERNBERG: Usually it was titled where he went, “Office for Relations With the Jews,” so it could be that he had this title at that time too. Tell me more now about the way in which your grandfather was able to save each of the family members that he saved. Tell us the process whereby each one of you was saved and, you know, the journeys each of you took, etc. Let’s take them one at a time.
RIVKIN: I’m gonna start with my youngest uncle. One thing I know. I know that for a period of three, four years, my grandfather who was in America, did nothing else but try to get visas and papers for his children. This is my mother’s family which was saved in its entirety, as compared to my father’s family which was entirely lost because they didn’t have a person there that was trying so hard to get them out. My youngest uncle had left Vienna at the same time as my father. And somehow from Trieste, he had gone to Turkey. And I don’t know how, but my grandfather got him out of Turkey straight to the United States. And he was the first child to arrive in the United
States. I’m just gonna do it in not any particular order.
STERNBERG: No, do it as you remember it. That’s the easiest way.
RIVKIN: My oldest uncle was the only uncle, only one of my grandfather’s children who was not living in Vienna. He lived in Poland.
STERNBERG: Where in Poland? Do you remember? (TELEPHONE INTERRUPTION) Okay, so your uncle was in Zhikov.
RIVKIN: In Zhikov with his family and they came to the United States through Shanghai. They went to Siberia and then they went to Shanghai where they – I think they were there for a couple of years. And then they came here. They were the last to come and I think they came in maybe in 1941, something like that. Does that sound right?
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. It could be, yeah. Because the Japanese were not in the war until December of 1941 and at that time anyway, Shanghai was a free city under China and it was still easier to get in and out, so it’s quite possible, yeah.
RIVKIN: Then the uncle – my second uncle who got to London, he was instrumental in getting us papers to come to London. See, when you have – it wasn’t a large family, but it was large enough so that if somebody got out, they helped the other people in the family to get out. He got to London and again, I don’t know exactly how they each went in a different direction and why. I don’t know that. But he got to London and because he got to London, he got my mother and my aunt papers to come as domestics to London. And I came on a child transport to London.
STERNBERG: On a kindertransport?
RIVKIN: Although I did not travel with the kindertransport, I traveled with my mother and my aunt, but those were the papers that brought me to London.
STERNBERG: What year was that, do you recall? Was it 1939?
RIVKIN: Um-hum. And –
STERNBERG: Your father?
RIVKIN: My father was in France. He never made it to London at all. He made it to England for a very short time, during which time the English imprisoned him on the Isle of Man in an internment camp, you know, for enemy aliens. And…
STERNBERG: Were you in England at the time that happened?
RIVKIN: Uh-hum, I was. And that was just absolutely a roll of the dice, who went and who didn’t because my aunt was interned and my father was interned, my great-uncle was interned, but my mother and my uncle and I were not interned.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. Was this all in 1939, or you said he was in France for a while, for a few years before he got out.
RIVKIN: You’re, you’re – this is the first time that I’m really looking at the whole situation in any kind of intellectual kind of way. Maybe he was there for a year and one-half. He was there at the same time. He was in Paris with the Lubavitcher Rebbe during that time, but he was in other places too. He was in Chateau-Thierry and he was all over France, because he was forced to wander because he had no papers. And he tried very hard to get to England, but the English wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have the right kind of papers. Finally they did let him in, but he was in a very short time and they regarded him with a great deal of suspicion. When we left England to come to the United States, it was during the war, already England was in the war, and we traveled on a ship for 11 days. The ship was all – you know, all the port holes were covered and we were accompanied by a warship through the English waters, and all the time that we were in the area of British waters, my father was in the brig. He didn’t get out of the brig until we left English waters. But my father did finally make it. He had a lot of harrowing experiences in France. As I said, his existence –
STERNBERG: Do you recall any of them, him ever talking about any of them? Did he tell you about any of these experiences?
RIVKIN: He told me very little and it’s very interesting to me that as a child I never asked my father any questions because I was very aware that he was in a lot of pain, having lost his entire family. And I never asked him anything unless he volunteered. And some of the things that he did tell me was that because he was a person that ate only kosher food and even kosher milk, that he suffered from malnutrition all the time that he was in France because he just never had the right kind of food to eat. And afterward, as a result of that, his health suffered. He told me that he had been put into solitary confinement by the French at one time for a period of two weeks and during that time, he didn’t see any human faces and they just shoved in a piece of dry bread and water for him. And he said that had he not had his copy of a particular Talmud, he would have gone insane, but instead he studied the Talmud and he wrote annotations on it which were later printed in a book. It was the book that he’d worked on during those two weeks that he had been in isolation. Another story that he told me was that he had been in the south of France during the High Holy Days and he could – he was not in a position to have a minyan for davening. And my father was not only one of the great scholars of our generation, he was a bit of a romantic too, so he said that what he did – it was in the area where the tosaphists had lived.
STERNBERG: Where Baalei Tosafos lived –
RIVKIN: Uh-hum. And so what he did was he said he was “M’tzaref,” the Baalei Tosefos was to join him in a minyan for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And that was how he davened that year. When he was in Paris he told me he lived in what is called the “Pletzel” which is the Jewish neighborhood even now, I think. And there were a lot of emigres there. He was friendly with the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the time.
STERNBERG: The present Lubavitcher Rebbe?
RIVKIN: The present Lubavitcher Rebbe. Although, I have to say, getting back to the library, that the former Lubavitcher Rebbe and the present Lubavitcher Rebbe were both customers. And the present Lubavitcher Rebbe came very often to Vienna to buy from him. But, so that was my father’s experience in Paris and France. And I think it was a very hard experience. Another thing that I found out after his death, because he never showed it to me, was that he was receiving mail from his family in Poland while he was in France. And I have their letters which they wrote to him. And they’re very inspiring letters. They were Belzer Hasidim and two things: first of all, they had absolute faith that God would help them. And in every letter they said not – for him not to worry about what was happening to them, that God would help them and that they were glad that he was safe because he was a great Talmid Chochom and that the Torah would continue to be studied through him. And they talked about their belief in the Rebbe. Now my father’s youngest brother did get a visa to go to Israel with his son, and the Belzer Rebbe told him not to go, and he did not go. He was lost in the Holocaust. And – but there was such a great faith in God and faith in the Rebbe, although they don’t – the postcards end before they – you know, every letter is just a very sweet, loving letter. You know, my grandmother writes, “Herziges Kind, my beloved child, I’m so glad you’re safe and that your wife and your little girl are safe and that you are continuing to study Torah. And we’re okay and don’t worry about us. We’re gonna be okay, and der Aibishter will help us.” And it’s just amazing the amount of faith these people had, just amazing.
STERNBERG: Now they were the heads of the community there?
STERNBERG: So they also didn’t want to abandon their Hasidim and their Mokom.
RIVKIN: That’s right. They didn’t, and they continued – and now what was really interesting was after the war, my father knew the story about his brother having an opportunity to go to Israel and didn’t go on the advice of the Rebbe. This did not cut his connection with the Rebbe. I don’t understand that.
STERNBERG: The Rebbe survived?
RIVKIN: The Rebbe survived. He went to Israel.
STERNBERG: The Rebbe went to Israel?
RIVKIN: Yeah. He died in Israel.
STERNBERG: At the same time?
RIVKIN: A little bit later.
STERNBERG: Hum, hum, hum, hum.
RIVKIN: And my father’s family – my father found out later how they died and they were not in the camps. They were taken en masse out of the city and burned in a general fire.
STERNBERG: Do you know when, approximately, what year?
RIVKIN: No, I don’t. My father used to have a specific date for the Yahrzeit, but I don’t have it anymore. But I’ll show you something else. Maybe I will. In one of his books he has – he dedicates it to them all. I’ll show it to you before you leave. The other thing about him. He had a grandfather, his mother’s father, who lived with the family. He was about 100 and “some” years old. And he was very weak, and he used to sit in bed and learn Talmud but when he saw what was going on with the Nazis, he told his family that he’d had enough. And he essentially willed himself to die within a couple of days he was dead. But the rest of the family was killed like that, and we’re talking a large family. We’re talking two brothers, one brother and two sisters married with children and some grandchildren.
STERNBERG: Let’s come back to the Gemara for a second, your father’s Gemara. Do you still have this Gemara?
STERNBERG: With the annotations in it?
RIVKIN: Yes. And also on the cover it says when he did it, yes, yes.
STERNBERG: I didn’t know you had so many important treasures.
RIVKIN: Oh, they’re treasures by me.
STERNBERG: They’re treasures for the world, not only by you.
STERNBERG: The more we talk, the more discoveries I think.
RIVKIN: Well my father was the greatest treasure of all.
STERNBERG: Yeah. Tell me, all of these visas and papers and these things, how they got out. Was it legal, was it illegal? Was it – do you know anything about how it worked and by what mechanism they were able to obtain the various permits, particularly your own family?
RIVKIN: I think they were legal.
STERNBERG: Your father’s as well.
RIVKIN: Yeah, but my father’s seemed to have been the most difficult. I’m not sure about my father because he seemed to have a harder time than anybody else did, getting out. He got to France and he didn’t have papers there, and he couldn’t get to England. He seemed to have a harder time than almost anybody else. I don’t know why. I just don’t know. I tend to think that a lot of these things were really just a matter of luck.
RIVKIN: I just don’t know why he had such a hard time, but he had a very hard time.
STERNBERG: He came to England and you were all reunited there.
RIVKIN: I don’t think I was reunited with him in England. I was evacuated to the country and I was living with a Christian family, and when he came to England, he was there for just a very short time. Yeah, we were reunited in England, yeah. He lived there a short time and then he was evacuated to the Isle of Man while I was in Cambridge. And then later, when we got the papers to come to America, we were reunited for a very short time, like a week or so in London before we made the trip to America.
STERNBERG: Okay let’s come back to England for a minute and talk a little bit more about that. What do you remember of the trip from Vienna to England?
RIVKIN: Terrible trip, just a terrible trip. The worst trip – I, I – sometimes I’m nervous now when I have to make a trip and I think it is because of that trip, because that trip, except for the morning after Kristallnacht, that was – of the experiences that I remember, I feel that I’ve blocked a lot of experiences, but the trip was awful. We went – from Vienna we first went to Brussels, where we had relatives. And from Brussels we traveled to London.
STERNBERG: By train?
RIVKIN: By train.
STERNBERG: Normal train trip?
RIVKIN: No, not a normal train trip. When we got on the train, and I don’t remember anything about the train, but that it was not your luxury train. And when we came to the border of Austria, it was late at night and all the Jews were asked to get off the train. And we got off the train and they herded us into this room at the railroad station. And the Gestapo were standing there and they put all the Jews in a circle, and they stood in the middle. And they said, “You’re gonna have to stand all night long, and if anybody makes a move or falls asleep, we’re gonna shoot them on the spot.” And the thing that I remember was how scared I was that I was gonna fall asleep. And my mother and my aunts put me between them and they said, “Don’t worry, we’re not gonna let you fall asleep. Nothing’s gonna happen.” But I’ll never forget how scared I was that I was gonna fall asleep because I was very tired, and that they were gonna shoot me to death. And I remember that night very, very clearly.
STERNBERG: How long did you stay up that night? How long were you made to stand there?
RIVKIN: All night.
STERNBERG: All night?
RIVKIN: All night.
STERNBERG: Were there searches conducted or was there anything else that went on during that time?
RIVKIN: Not that I remember.
STERNBERG: They just made you all stand there. Did the identity papers that you had say you were Jewish? I mean, how did they know you were Jewish? How did they know who was a Jew at that time?
RIVKIN: Tell me, did the papers usually show it?
STERNBERG: At different periods of time, yeah, but you see, if this was after the Anschluss and they issued German passports –
RIVKIN: We didn’t have German passports.
STERNBERG: You had Austrian passports.
RIVKIN: We had stateless passports.
STERNBERG: Stateless passports, all right, okay.
RIVKIN: We lost our citizenship immediately. That was one of the difficulties –

Tape 2 - Side 1

STERNBERG: We left off the last time talking – let’s see if it’s on now – okay. I’m gonna start. This is the beginning of the tape. This is Rabbi Robert Sternberg. Today’s date is November 6, 1990, and I’m continuing with the interview of Rebbetzin Rivkin.
Rebbetzin, I have to ask you a few things going back over some of the material that we had talked about the last time. First of all, we had talked about – you detailed very well the visit of Eichmann and we left off at the end talking about the train trip that your family was taking, escaping Vienna and going to England. Before we come back to that though, I would like to ask you one general question about what changes you may have noticed occurring, both in your home life and in your environment in Vienna, from the time Eichmann visited your house in March of 1938, up to and including the Kristallnacht. And after that when you finally received your visas and you were able to leave Vienna.
RIVKIN: Total metamorphosis. I told you that my father and my two uncles were gone, so that meant half of the family was gone. There were empty rooms where they had confiscated the library. The domestic staff was no longer working for us. It was just my mother, my aunt and myself. For a time we lived in another place because my mother was afraid that Eichmann would come back for me. Then I think we came back to the apartment. There was no school because my school – I was going to a Jewish day school in Vienna, and the Jewish day school was burned down and there was no school for me. My mother became sick and she went to a Nazi dentist and this is something that had an effect on me in my attitude toward dentists. She went to a Nazi dentist and some kind of a weird Nazi scheme –
STERNBERG: Why did she go to the Nazi dentist? Was it required?
RIVKIN: I don’t know. She had had rheumatic fever and the doctor said that she needed to go to the doctor because maybe the infection was coming from her teeth. Up to that point she had had a mouth of healthy, live teeth. And she was a young woman. She went to the Nazi dentist and, lo and behold, she had no teeth.
STERNBERG: He pulled all the teeth.
RIVKIN: He pulled all the teeth. And she always told me that they were perfectly healthy teeth. There was no reason to have taken her teeth out of her mouth. And I – that’s one of the things – it may sound like a minor thing, but I’ve never forgotten it.
STERNBERG: Not at all.
RIVKIN: She used to have to queue up for food. It was really hard to get food for us. And –
STERNBERG: Rations were in force at that time.
RIVKIN: Right. Things were just – they were just very, very difficult and it was a complete change of lifestyle for me.
STERNBERG: Were Jews leaving Vienna all the time during this time? Did you notice people in your community, in your environment, former schoolmates, whatever, leaving, disappearing?
RIVKIN: No, I don’t remember a lot. I think I’ve blocked it. I don’t know. I’ll tell you what I do remember. This is not in your question but I’m trying to remember whatever I can.
STERNBERG: Please, please.
RIVKIN: One of the things I remember people talking about was that Hitler was looking for people that were only fractionally Jewish and there was a lot of intermarriage in Vienna. And people who were passing for Gentile were being picked up as Jews if they were a quarter or an eighth or whatever Jewish. And I’ve always remembered that too. That seemed to have been very significant to me. And I think that they were picking up people in our neighborhood, who we didn’t think were Jewish, were being picked up as Jews. As far as people leaving, I think people were trying to leave. People were really trying to leave. I know that I mentioned it somewhat to you that my mother was determined to leave and she didn’t have the specific place that she was determined to go. She said that she would go to Israel, England or the United States and it didn’t matter to her where, and that, even though she had no family in Israel, that she knew that she had to get out. And one of the things that I credit my mother for was that she lost an awful lot. She made the decision that we had to get out, leaving everything, and that’s a very hard decision for adult people to make. You’re used to a certain kind of lifestyle and she never had the same kind of lifestyle after that, after leaving Vienna.
STERNBERG: Do you remember the day that your visas finally arrived to get out of Vienna?
RIVKIN: No, I don’t.
STERNBERG: Or the experience of preparing to leave? What did you take with you when you did leave?
RIVKIN: My mother sent everything in crates. She had a packing company come and pack up everything that we had in our house. And my uncle, who lives in New York, told me what happened when the crates arrived. The crates arrived empty except for some pieces of Judaica and some other feather down quilts or something. Those were the only things that survived Hitler as far as we were concerned. If you look around the house, you’ll see I have some exceedingly fine silver and – but not all the silver, only the Judaic pieces. For example, flatware and bowls and these kind of things were taken. It was only good Chanukia and candelabra that survived. And as far as what we took with us on our person, we took very, very little. And we were not able to take money.
STERNBERG: So people were legally, at least fictitiously, allowed to take things with them to the extent that you could crate things up, pack them away and ship them, but obviously were gone through by the authorities somewhere along the line.
RIVKIN: Absolutely. As far as what we took with us, I think, you know, in the suitcases when we traveled, I think we traveled very, very lightly, practically nothing with us.
STERNBERG: Now you all got visas to travel at the same time, but you were saying that your visa was connected with the Kindertransport.
RIVKIN: That’s right. My visa was from the Kindertransport, but I traveled with my mother and my aunt, although the papers were made up to be part of the kindertransport. And my mother and my aunt’s papers were the papers of a domestic – you know, to be a maid in England, but we were able to travel together. And it was my mother’s brother who had arrived in England a few months earlier, that arranged the papers for his two sisters.
STERNBERG: Was the Kindertransport on the same train that you were, in a different place?
RIVKIN: No. I traveled totally independent of the Kindertransport. I never saw them and I never was supposed to ride with them. I just knew that was the basis of my papers.
STERNBERG: And it didn’t matter then what way in which you left. Once you got those papers, you could go at any time?
RIVKIN: I guess so.
STERNBERG: Now the last time we spoke, you talked about being stopped midway during this train ride and made to stand all evening. You stated at that time that you were not searched. Was there any other point in time during the train ride in which you were searched, asked for documents?
RIVKIN: By the way, I just realized that I disagreed with what I said last time. We were searched.
STERNBERG: You were searched.
RIVKIN: We were searched.
STERNBERG: What more do you remember of it?
RIVKIN: I remember the shock of having the Gestapo get on the train and rout us out of our places and standing in that train station all night until morning.
STERNBERG: Were you a large group that were doing that?
RIVKIN: Yes we were. I would say that we were about 50 people.
STERNBERG: All from these cars? Or would they just go up and down the train and take out what they thought might have been the Jews? Do you remember how that worked a little bit, more details?
RIVKIN: I don’t, I don’t. But I think that although my memory is sort of stirring a little bit, I think that the Gestapo got on the train, looked at everybodys’ papers and made the Jews get out, they went through the entire train, and were able to get out 40 or 50 people.
STERNBERG: Now you said that your family had stateless passports.
RIVKIN: That’s right.
STERNBERG: Do you recall whether or not this was typical of the Jews leaving Austria at this time?
RIVKIN: I think so. I think that was one of the first things that happened was that the Jews lost their citizenship. I would say that that was just general.
STERNBERG: Your parents, you said, were not born in Vienna, that they were naturalized as Austrians.
RIVKIN: That’s right.
STERNBERG: Could this perhaps account for the statelessness?
RIVKIN: I really don’t know. You probably know more about this.
STERNBERG: Yeah, because many Austrians also had German passports. The Austrian passport was discontinued and the people who were citizens of Austria, that were born citizens of Austria, were given German passports.
RIVKIN: I just wonder – I was born Austrian.
STERNBERG: Yeah. Do you recall what kind of a passport you had?
RIVKIN: I didn’t have a passport of my own. I was on my mother’s passport.
RIVKIN: And I was – I traveled with my mother and I have pictures of me. Although coming to the United States, I had my own papers. But leaving Vienna I was on my mother’s papers.
STERNBERG: Um-hum. Okay. What else do you remember about that trip? Was this the only moment in which you experienced something horrible, or were there other horrible moments as well?
RIVKIN: No, I imagine the whole thing must have been really terrible to me because I don’t know how much I understood of what was going on because, in a sense, for a small child it’s a terrible experience. We went – from Austria we went to Brussels where we had family. And we stayed there with them for a couple of days before going on to England. The whole experience was terrible. The people in Brussels were not in great shape either. The whole thing was beginning to fall apart all over Europe.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. Now what happened when you got to England? Were you with your mother and aunt? Were you separated from them? What do you remember of that?
RIVKIN: Well when we got to England, we lived in Whitechapel. Are you familiar with London?
RIVKIN: It’s on the east side of London. And that was comparable, I would say, to the lower east side of New York. And we lived under very poor circumstances. I remember that my parents, my family had a lot of people from Vienna who lived there too, living under the same circumstances, without money. I think that the money that my family had, my grandfather was sending from the United States. Or maybe they were helped by an agency in England. I don’t know. But we had very little money and we lived very poorly. We (LAUGHTER) did not have indoor plumbing where we lived. We lived on the second floor and one of the things that I remember is that when someone knocked on the door, I would hide under the table because I was really scared that the Gestapo was going to follow me. And I was starting school in London, and one of the things that I think speaks so eloquently of my mother was that at that time, when things were so bad, she didn’t know where her husband was, and things were so bad for her in London. They were not satisfied with the Talmud Torah so she hired me (LAUGHTER) a private rebbe to teach me how to read Ivri. Nothing was going to stop in that process. And she hired a little old man, a typical old-fashioned rebbe who came to the house and taught me Ivrit. And I remember that (LAUGHTER) with a lot of fun because I didn’t really like him. I used to run away from him and she and the rebbe used to run after me in the streets to find me and get me to sit down and learn aleph, bais. And he taught it in the traditional way, you know, kometz aleph, “Oh,” kometz bais, “Bo.” (CHANTING)
RIVKIN: And I don’t know how I learned to read Hebrew under all these circumstances, but I did. Sometime after that, England got into the war and then it was time for the children to leave. And then I left my family and I went to live with an English family in Cambridge.
STERNBERG: Okay. So you arrived in 1939. You were taken right away – or you found right away this housing in Whitechapel. Your mother and your aunt were given these visas as domestics. Did they ever work as domestics?
STERNBERG: So this was just –
RIVKIN: Right, very.
STERNBERG: Your father at this time was still in France? Is that right?
RIVKIN: Right.
STERNBERG: Did he come over before the war actually broke out?
RIVKIN: No. He came after the war broke out.
STERNBERG: Okay. We were talking about your father being in France. Do you remember the experience of him coming over? Did you see him right away when he came over? Tell us more about that. Tell me more about that.
RIVKIN: It’s really amazing how much I don’t remember. No, I don’t think I saw him right away. I don’t think I saw him for quite a while after we arrived in England. First of all, I was not in London. He arrived in London. Once he arrived in London, he was interned on the Isle of Man.
STERNBERG: Yes, you told me that.
RIVKIN: I don’t think I saw him for quite a while until my parents must have received papers to go to America and they picked me up from the country. And I was in London for a while. I would say I was in London for a few weeks. And we went through the Blitz at that time. I was in London during the war at that time right before we left. And I saw my father then, briefly. But I was really not reunited with him until we were reunited on the boat after we left English waters because during the time that we were in English waters, he was still in the – what do they call the ship prison?
STERNBERG: He was incarcerated.
RIVKIN: Right.
STERNBERG: In the hold.
RIVKIN: In the hold, right.
STERNBERG: So you were really not very long in England altogether?
RIVKIN: I would say a year and a half.
STERNBERG: A year and a half. Now, and your father arrived sometime within that year and a half. And most of the time he was imprisoned during the time he was there. Is that right?
RIVKIN: Right. I would say he was not in England maybe more than four or five months.
STERNBERG: Did your mother see him at that time?
RIVKIN: Oh yeah. First of all, he had arrived in England, in London where she was, and I think that she went to visit him on the Isle of Man.
STERNBERG: She was allowed to do that?
RIVKIN: Yeah, I think so. Her sister was there too, and also her great-uncle.
STERNBERG: Um-hum. And they were allowed to see him then?
RIVKIN: Yeah, right, right.
STERNBERG: Now you ended up living with a Christian family for a time. How did that happen and what was it like? What were your feelings about that? First tell us about how it happened and then we’ll talk a little more about it.
RIVKIN: Well, they were sending all the school children out of London. I left London with my only Jewish friend who was another Orthodox Jewish girl who knew Yiddish, which was paramount because I only spoke German. I still hadn’t picked up enough English to be really an English speaker. And when we arrived in Cambridge, we were a package deal, because I didn’t know any English and they wanted to keep me with her. And there were not too many people who wanted a German speaking child because it’s very interesting that for the Germans I was Jewish, and for the British I was German. And there was this family that took me in – and they were a wonderful family. They were noble people, noblemen. They were members of the House of Lords. Their name was Randall, Lord Randall. And they took me in and they were the only family that was willing to take a German speaking child. They took my friend, Sarah Lampel, along with me, but Sarah Lampel didn’t last long. She didn’t like it there and she insisted that her parents come and pick her up and they did pick her up, and they took her to England. I was much more a pliant child. Or maybe my mother – I’d gone through a lot. I knew what danger was, much more than Sarah did because she was an English girl. So I stayed with the Randalls and they – I felt that they were just wonderful.
STERNBERG: The children were removed from London because of the Blitz, and British families that were outside of London were asked to open up their homes to children.
RIVKIN: That’s right.
STERNBERG: And they just matched up children through the schools with the families? Is that how it worked?
RIVKIN: It was just a roll of the dice. You know, one of the things that really strikes you about everything that took place at that time was that it was a matter of mazel and you had very little control over your life or the life of your child or whatever. I was just really fortunate that I got in with absolutely wonderful people. But I could have been with child molesters. There was no great social work scheme. It was just a matter of luck. They were really wonderful people. They were an older couple who had a single daughter and when I moved into their house – I think this was maybe one of the attractions – it was more of the kind of house I was used to than I had been in in London. And it was much more comfortable. It was much more tranquil. And they very nice people to me. They were awfully nice. One of the things that they really made a point – my mother must have spoken to them – of respecting my religion.
STERNBERG: I was going to ask about that next.
RIVKIN: They did. They were religious people. They went to church every Sunday and one of them stayed home with me so I wouldn’t have to go. When it was Christmas, they gave me gifts, but I didn’t participate in any kind of religious way. As far as eating was concerned, I ate other things, but I did not eat meat there. And there was a kosher kitchen for Jewish children in the area and we had a kosher lunch. And one of the things that really amazes me about myself, because I was quite young, was that I had a really strong sense of my Jewish identity and I was determined not to eat treife meat. And one time I remember my mother, who visited me every Sunday, brought salami for me with a kosher knife, and I remember hiding the knife because I didn’t want it to get trefa. And I kept the salami for myself. I didn’t let it – I just, I just knew I was Jewish and no matter where I was, I was going to stay Jewish. You know, it wasn’t something that I thought out, I was just too young to have thought it out, but it was very, very strong in me.
STENRBERG: Did you maintain contact with these people after you left England?
RIVKIN: I did. I maintained contact with them until they died.
STERNBERG: Hm! And their daughter is still alive, I assume?
RIVKIN: Yes. They sent me a wedding gift when I got married. We corresponded and they were just absolutely wonderful people. The man, Mr. Randall, used to sit with me in front of the blackboard and teach me English.
STERNBERG: Okay. So you learned English really with them. That was the beginning of your learning English. Until you learned it, how did you communicate?
RIVKIN: I think I really learned from sharing. You know, I believe that children can learn second languages very quickly.
STERNBERG: Sure, they can.
RIVKIN: Just in no time at all, I learned English.
STERNBERG: So after a year and a half, this would probably be sometime in 1942, I would guess. Is that correct? You arrived there in 1939 – ’41. Sometime in ’41, you set sail for America, you and your mother and your father – your aunt? Your aunt remained in England?
RIVKIN: My aunt – in the meantime she got married and she didn’t come to the States until later.
STERNBERG: And you got these American visas through your grandfather.
RIVKIN: Yes, through my grandfather, but I think there were other people involved. I was told my father came over on the papers of a rabbi which was arranged for him by a rabbi in Rochester, New York.
STERNBERG: Okay, we were talking about getting these papers.
RIVKIN: Rabbi Kurtz in Rochester, New York arranged for a shul in Buffalo, New York to send my father a visa with the job bearing the title of rabbi of the shul in Buffalo, New York, to send my father a visa with the job guaranteed as rabbi of the shul in Buffalo, New York.
STERNBERG: Did he actually go, or was this – ?
RIVKIN: We didn’t go right away. I don’t know why. We stayed in New York for, I’d say close to a year, maybe. I don’t know exactly – maybe a year. But then we went to Buffalo and my father was the rav of that shul, and I grew up in Buffalo. As a matter of fact, when I finally got to Buffalo, that was where my normal life started. I was in the same school for more than six months, using the same language for more than six months, same house for more than six months.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. Were you old enough to follow the news of the war and events that unfolded once you were in America? How was the whole subject of what was going on in Europe treated? Do you remember?
RIVKIN: I remember people talking about it. I don’t remember reading the newspaper. And one of the things is that I never brought it up. I just had a sense that my father, especially, was very fragile in regard to it, and I just never brought anything up. I never asked him about anything. I do know, I do recall that sometime during this period, my father received word of what happened to his family. Someone told him who’d been there. And I remember the change in my father. My father became a very old man overnight, and I just – and he told me that he knew when the Yahrzeit was for his family, and he observed the Yahrzeit, but somehow I forgot it and so I observed their Yahrzeit on Yom Kippur. And he was very broken by what had happened. He was – he lost his entire family.
STERNBERG: Not a soul but himself survived?
RIVKIN: Not any. He just lost – I remember after the war, he met one of the Soloveitchiks, Rebbitzen Soloveitchik, who was a friend of our family, and one of the things that she had done was that she went to Europe after the war and she spent some time. And she found some of her family. My father, I think, always regretted that he couldn’t have done more. But I don’t think he could have gone, that it was impossible. He was not in a very strong position himself. It was impossible to have done anything –
STERNBERG: Sure, sure.
RIVKIN: He had – that’s about it.
STERNBERG: Feelings and reality are always not the same.
RIVKIN: Right, right.
STERNBERG: Like you cannot invalidate feelings that are there, but at the same time, you have to acknowledge the reality and understand the reality was such that more couldn’t have been done.
RIVKIN: That’s right. My father, Rabbi Dov Ber Zuckerman ZTZ’L was a very great Talmudic scholar, one of the greatest of our generation and he authored a number of books on Maimonides and on Talmud. And he asked in his will that every one of his books afterwards contain this dedication to the family that he lost. And I’d like to read it. “Upon these, my eyes cry, water drops from my eyes on these holy and pure souls: My mother, the sainted woman, Yocheved Rivka, who from the side of her mother was a descendent of the great Boruch Tam and the Bobov Lom. She was the daughter of Rabbi Shimon who was the Av Bes Din of Unav. He was the son of the Great Gaon and also my sister, Zosia Bryna, and her son, Yaakov, and her daughter Henne Zloteh, and her son, Aryeh Leibish, and her daughter, Chana, (SOBBING AS SHE READS) and my brother, Eliyalu, and his son Chaim Araan, and my sister Tova Basha, and her husband, Avrohom, and their daughter, Zloteh, that were killed cruelly by the Nazis, Yimach Shman. May God remember them for good with the rest of the good people of the world and may Hashem revenge their deaths. Their son and their brother who pains for them forever.” (THIS READING WAS AN EMOTIONALLY PAINFUL ONE FOR THE INTERVIEWEE WHO SOBBED AUDIBLY DURING THE READING.)
STERNBERG: Let’s do a little bit more.
STERNBERG: So we talked a little bit about –

Tape 2 - Side 2

– for a moment to schooling in America and the years, let’s say first of all, between 1941 when you first arrived and 1945, the end of the war. In Buffalo they didn’t have a Jewish day school.
RIVKIN: No, they didn’t.
STERNBERG: So tell me about your schooling?
RIVKIN: I went to public school and what was really interesting in that regard was that up to this point, up till and including my first year in Buffalo, I was an average student because just too much going on for me to have been a good student. And then suddenly I became an outstanding student, which indicated to me that my life of chaos, which indicated to me that my life had calmed down. I was experiencing a normal kind of life.
STERNBERG: How did you interact with people, in the school, in the community, Jewish people, non-Jewish people? What do you remember of that?
RIVKIN: I think I interacted very well. I didn’t know that I was a Holocaust survivor until years later. I said this at Block Yeshiva High School because my family had really not had that. And I had been so lucky. And all of the other people who had been lost, they were the Holocaust survivors, but I had been lucky and we considered ourselves to be lucky all the time. And I don’t believe in bilingual education because I learned how to speak English fluently and I learned how to speak Yiddish fluently. I picked up my second and third languages simultaneously and those are my best languages now.
STERNBERG: Maybe your third and fourth because you had Ivrit as well as German. (LAUGHTER)
RIVKIN: Right, right, right. But I’m talking conversational really, real good. And I never – I think that my house was a European house and I knew English better than both my parents did and I did a lot of things for them as the English speaking person in the house. But I never thought of myself as being that different from all the Americans. And in public school there certainly were a lot of people who were not Jewish. I don’t think I shared my experiences with them.
STERNBERG: With the Jewish ones you did?
RIVKIN: I don’t think I talked about it. It’s just that my life started in a different way and that’s where it took off. I think that my parents – when I think back, I think that they were very hurt by what had happened, and they made the best of it. They were very courageous and wonderful people, but I think that they had, they had their scars.
STERNBERG: Sure, sure. Being the daughter of the Rabbi must have also carried with it both some pressure and some pain, but also some pleasure, you know.
RIVKIN: That’s right.
STERNBERG: Maybe tell us about that.
RIVKIN: You know, it’s the only life that I’ve known, so it’s not that I know of what I was missing or what I gained. I was an only child. I had two older parents and they loved me very much. They adored me and I adored them. I had a very close relationship with my father and my mother. I think that my parents always taught me a certain amount of “noblesse oblige,” that there were higher expectations for me than for other people and that I had to do the right thing, and I got to believing it. I think it was a terrific (LAUGHTER) way of manipulating me to my absolute best behavior. And I had a very nice life with my parents.
STERNBERG: Were there other religious children your age there?
RIVKIN: Not too many.
STERNBERG: I didn’t think so. I wouldn’t have thought so.
RIVKIN: There turned out to be only one other religious girl. Her name was Judy Radner and she’s now married to Rabbi Zevulun Chalap, professor of Ivrit, at Y.U. And when my husband was installed in New York, Rabbi Chalap said that both he and my husband had picked the only two religious girls in Buffalo. (LAUGHTER)
RIVKIN: I think that Buffalo’s not too religious now either. But I have people, I have friends who are not religious. Our Shabbatot (Sabbaths) were all different. I attended Hebrew school always and had private tutors. My parents wanted me to get a very fine Jewish education.
STERNBERG: What was Hebrew school there? Everyday and Sunday?
RIVKIN: Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And it was in the days when your Hebrew teacher, if you didn’t behave, he’d pull your ears or something. (LAUGHTER)
STERNBERG: (LAUGHTER) I share that experience because growing up in Denver, I was there at a time before the day school was opened. So the religious kids had to go to cheder and go to public school. And then when it did open, I was too old for it because they opened, you know, like they do in younger grades. And so I remember five days a week – four days a week was cheder and there was Sunday and then there was private tutoring, and I had to learn Mishna this way.
RIVKIN: Right. (LAUGHTER) Absolutely.
RIVKIN: And Shabbos, and – what I think about now was I used to come home very late from Hebrew school.
STERNBERG: Oh yeah, sure.
RIVKIN: And Buffalo had heavy snows, you know. I really admire my parents because they didn’t baby me. I remember that I used to travel on buses, two buses to get home at seven o’clock at night from Hebrew school. I remember one night especially, I had a new coat and I didn’t get new coats that often. My father was making 23 dollars a week as a rabbi at that time. And the first time that I wore the coat and I got off at that place where I transferred to the second bus from Hebrew school. And I went into the drug store and leaned against the coal stove and burned a spot in my brand new coat. And then I was so upset. I must have been about nine years old at the time, but instead of waiting for the second bus, I ran all the way home and I was hysterical, just hysterical! And there was another rabbi there and I remember him saying, “We’ll give you 50 dollars to stop crying! Anything, I’ll buy you 10 coats. Please stop crying.” And the fact of the matter is that my parents would not accept any money and I wore the coat with the burn on it for years. But that Hebrew school was – I went to Hebrew high school. We had a Hebrew college in Buffalo. I went to Massad to the Hebrew schools and camps and I went to the Bais Yaakov and then when I finished, I went to the Bais Yaakov Seminary in New York. I went to T.I. (Torah Institute) in New York.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. I only have two last questions to finish things off. The first is, when you finally got old enough and some years had passed, to understand something about the Holocaust and what it meant to the Jewish people and in particular to yourself and your own family, how did you assess it? How was it discussed, or was it? How was it dealt with in your home when finally you got to the point where you could talk about this perhaps as an adult rather than as a child?
RIVKIN: I never discussed it with my parents. But there were very clear messages. For example, let’s say about 10 years before my mother died, my mother received a set of very fine German china and she didn’t buy it. She received it as a gift. She would not use it. And I have my own assessment, however, and as you know, I feel very emotional about it. And I haven’t tried to curb that because as I said also at Block at that time, I feel that an emotional memory is necessary.
STERNBERG: Absolutely.
RIVKIN: And when I was bringing up my own children, I tried very hard to make it an emotional experience for them as well because with my children, I did discuss it.
STERNBERG: In what ways?
RIVKIN: I told them that it was a terrible thing that happened and I told them that my father’s family had been killed. I told them how cruel the Germans were. It wasn’t so much that I shared my own experiences. I just shared the general way –
STERNBERG: Feelings?
RIVKIN: Uh-huh. And we did not buy anything German. The last year I was in Switzerland and when I heard German spoken, I nearly went out of my mind. Going there on the plane – I’ve been to Europe, I’ve been to England and to Paris and to Amsterdam, but I haven’t been to a German city or country. On the way there, when we went to Zurich, I sat next to a couple that was traveling to Berlin and I thought I was going to die. They were speaking German. They were going to Berlin. I was so overcome by hatred that I couldn’t stand it.
STERNBERG: Uh-hum. Are you still at that point today in your feelings?
RIVKIN: Absolutely. I never want to lose it. I don’t want to come to an understanding with Germany. Although I don’t think that type of behavior is necessarily limited just to Germans –
STERNBERG: Not at all, not at all. People in Poland –
RIVKIN: Are even worse.
STERNBERG: – have quite a lot of feelings towards a lot of different nationalities, but –
RIVKIN: Absolutely.
STERNBERG: – Poles and Lithuanians and Latvians – everybody who comes from somewhere –
RIVKIN: Right.
STERNBERG: Austrians too –
RIVKIN: And Baker and Bush. (LAUGHTER)
STERNBERG: Yeah. But what I’m really trying to get at is what are you trying to impart – a) impart by those feelings and by sharing a sense of those feelings with others, and b) how would you want those of us who didn’t live through that to deal with those feeling and the legacy that it leaves?
RIVKIN: I spoke at Federation last week. I think that the situation now is pretty analagous to earlier times. I feel that we can’t afford to forget it. I think that the history of the Jew repeats itself. I feel that Jews in America are in a very strong position. I think they need to be vocal. I don’t think they’ve been vocal enough with the Bush and Baker administration. I think that we’re running into a period of high anti-Semitism. It was arrested after the war when the world felt guilty. They no longer feel guilty. They feel jealous of the Russian Jews that are coming into Israel. I think that we’re in for a very bad period. I think that the Jews in America have to get organized. I think they don’t need to be afraid. We’re in a strong position in this country. I think that we need to be more active. I hope that the General Assembly, for example, in San Francisco is going to come out for strong resolutions. I spoke to someone today. They said that they are afraid that people are scared and they’re gonna water down their resolutions. I surely hope not. I think it’s a time for response, active vocal response in America. That’s one thing that Jews in America need to do. And the second thing is – and this I said at Block Yeshiva High School. The message is that if we lost all these precious souls, then we have to dedicate our lives to – in such a way that through our own lives and through our own actions to make up for all these, because by this time we’ve lost more than seven million. We’ve lost seven million and their possible children and grandchildren. And it was the flower of Jewish civilization in Europe. We need to have strong Jewish identity. We need to have a very strong Jewish society here. This is all a tribute to the seven million who died. I don’t believe in just museums. I believe that we have to be really active in perpetuating that memory.
STERNBERG: Absolutely. I’m gonna stop the tape over here.

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