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)
STERNBERG: (LAUGHING AND CHANTING WITH THE REBBITZEN)
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?
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.
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 –