The Life of Rivka S.
by Rebecca C.
Lick-Wilmerding High School
Through The Next Chapter, I had the honor of getting to know Rivka Spiegel, a Holocaust survivor whose story is tragic, yet both enlightening and inspiring. Rivka grew up in Ozorkow, Poland, with her two older sisters, Golda and Rachel, and one older brother, David. Her family (including her extended family, who all lived in Ozorkow) was very close. They celebrated Jewish holidays and went to synagogue. The Jews in Ozorkow mixed with the Christians there, for Rivka went to school with both Jews and non-Jews. Rivka would spend her free time playing in her yard with her siblings and friends.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Rivka was in the second grade. Rivka and all other Jews in Ozorkow were forced to walk on the street where the horses trotted instead of on the sidewalk, and many of her Christian friends had suddenly become her enemies. She had to stop going to school when she was sent to the Ozorkow ghetto with her family. Because they could only take one bag of items to the ghetto, their non-Jewish neighbors and friends told Rivka’s family to leave their most valuable items with them, where they would keep them safe until the war ended. Rivka’s mother sold her those items instead, so that her family would have more money to buy food in the ghetto.
Marked with yellow star patches, Rivka and her family arrived at the ghetto and were forced to work. Rivka worked in a factory sewing buttons onto uniforms for soldiers. With hardly any food or time to rest, living in the ghetto was taxing and frightening. Rivka once watched German guards hang twelve Jewish men merely to instill fear into the Jews being held there.
At Passover, Rivka’s mother prepared a Seder for her family while still in the ghetto. They tried to celebrate the holiday in as similar a manner as they did before the start of the war. This Seder was one of the happier times in the Ozorkow ghetto for Rivka. Yet, sadly, the next morning, Rivka’s parents were taken to Treblinka, and she never saw them again.
Rivka and her siblings were then taken to Lodz ghetto, where they lived in horrific conditions. Dead bodies were piled in the streets, and the “bathroom” was far from sanitary. The leader of the ghetto informed everyone that if they worked, nothing would happen to them, and that they should not be afraid. Rivka worked in a factory making boots out of straw for the German soldiers. She earned money that could then be used to buy food rations. If one did not work in the ghetto, one could not earn money, and thus could not buy food; working was essential for survival at the Lodz ghetto.
Rivka stayed in the Lodz ghetto until its liquidation in 1944. Everyone imprisoned in the ghetto was to be sent to the train station and moved elsewhere, but Rivka and her siblings hid and ran away into the woods. Without food or water, and after about a day of hiding, they were so hungry and weak that they walked to the train station where they were originally going to be taken. There, they received neither food nor water, and instead were forced onto a train.
The train car they were loaded into had horrible conditions. The people had to stand around the pile of feces in the middle, which was the “bathroom.” They were cooped inside it for two days without food or water, and many people died.
Rivka and her siblings got off of the train at Birkenau. The sign at the entrance Rivka remembers to have read “work makes life sweet.” Once out of the train, the men and women lined up separately. This would be the last time Rivka ever saw her brother, and someone later told her that they saw him in a death march, where he was killed because he could barely walk.
Rivka and her two sisters were put in a barrack and assigned to a “bed.” Each “bed” (which was really only a wooden square) held seven people very tightly, and if anyone’s limb stuck out from it, a guard would hit them. They were given soup and bread once a day. Out of desperation, Rivka’s sister Golda smuggled herself out of the barrack and into a kitchen to steal some soup. She was caught and beaten very badly. However, she was able to keep the soup in between her legs the entire time, so when she came back to the barracks, she gave the soup to her sisters.
After two weeks, Rivka, Golda, Rachel, and other prisoners were sent to the showers. Rivka had a feeling that this would be the end of her life, as she had known that some people did not make it out of these showers alive. She was aware that these showers sometimes poured out water, and other times gas. Luckily, water rained down on Rivka and her sisters, and they were thankfully saved.
Rivka, Golda, and Rachel were then chased out of the showers naked, and were forced to walk in a circle among other prisoners. As they walked, the soldiers would pull the weakest prisoners out; those were the ones who would be killed. Rivka and her sisters tried very hard to look strong and tough while walking in the circle, so as not to be picked out. Luckily, they were not taken out, but instead were given some clothes and were taken to Bergen-Belsen.
Rivka became extremely weak and sick at Bergen-Belsen. She and her sisters found out that she was going to be taken to a clinic for the sick, which in reality was where they took the weakest people to kill them. Although Rivka could barely move, Golda and Rachel pushed and pleaded her to use all her might and escape the clinic.
One day, the soldiers sorted the prisoners of Bergen-Belsen into two lines. Golda quickly realized that she, Rivka, and Rachel were in the line with the weakest people, and that everyone in their line was going to be killed. After much persuading, Golda dragged her sisters into the other line as quickly and discreetly as possible. The line of people that they snuck into was taken to Salzwedel concentration camp.
At Salzwedel, Rivka got a job working in the kitchen that prepared the prisoners’ food. The German guards, however, forced Rivka to bring that food over to their own kitchen, so that they could skirt around their own rationings and get extra food. As Rivka trudged along in the cold everyday carrying food to and from the kitchens, her sisters would meet her and steal some food. Rivka was worried that they would get caught, so she told them to stop stealing. One day, Golda and Rachel were caught, and were forced to stand outside in the cold wearing signs that read “carrot stealer.”
Throughout her time at Salzwedel, Rivka bonded with a woman who was working as an S.S. The woman treated her surprisingly well, for Rivka reminded her of her little sister who had died. They spent lots of time together, and Rivka was often invited to the woman’s house for dinner. This relationship would come to an end on May 15, 1945. Rivka began to worry, for no one had woken her up to begin working in the kitchen. Fearful of what might happen if she did not go to work, Rivka went outside and saw that there was not a German guard in sight. The guards had all fled because the Americans had invaded Germany. All the people swarmed into the kitchens to eat food, but Rivka ran straight to the S.S. woman’s home to check and see if she was okay. Rivka met the woman’s mother at the door, who told her that the woman had committed suicide. “I will never forgive myself for that,” Rivka told me, for she feels she was crazy to have gone and checked on the German woman rather than scavenge for food by breaking into the kitchen along with the other prisoners.
The Americans took Rivka, her sisters, and all the prisoners to a Displaced Persons camp. There, Rivka lived in an orphanage and went to school. She and her sisters later moved to Israel. Rivka remembers this being the “happiest time of [her] life,” for she felt extremely at home in Israel because she was free from hardship and persecution. It was the first time she ever felt welcomed as a Jew. Rivka met her husband in Israel, who was also a Holocaust survivor. There, they got married and had a baby girl.
Rivka and her sisters had insisted on staying together for the rest of their lives, for they were the only ones out of their entire family that had survived the Holocaust. So, they and their families decided to move to the U.S. together. Rachel made the trip out to America first, and then Rivka, but Golda and her family never made it. To this day, Golda still lives in Israel.
Rivka has always regretted her move to America. She loved living in Israel, and she never dreamed of separating from her sister. She tried to move back, but did not have enough money, and the Israeli government would not help her immigrate because they claimed they could only help those who had never lived there before. Rivka always blamed herself for her husband’s death at 41 years old due to a heart attack. She thought that if she had never moved to the U.S., he would not have died. Rivka never remarried.
While in America, Rivka, her daughter, and her son (who was born in the U.S.) struggled to make ends meet. Rivka always had to work; she was never able to go to school or be taught English because her family had to be her priority.
Despite having many regrets about leaving Israel, Rivka is most proud of her family. With the birth of her great-grandson just recently, Rivka is happy and proud that her family is growing “out of the ashes.” Rivka hopes that every Jewish person has a big family, so that the six million Jewish lives that were lost in the Holocaust can be revived. “The Germans did not defeat us,” she told me confidently, and I too share her same mentality.
I am truly grateful for Rivka sharing her story with me. After spending time with her, I became more and more inspired by her bravery, resilience, and dedication to her family. It is unimaginable what she underwent during the Holocaust, and I will never be able to empathize with the extremity of emotions that she has endured. Yet, Rivka has helped me to broaden my awareness of life’s uncertainties, and to appreciate everyday without taking anything for granted.
 An extermination camp formed in 1942. It housed chambers and large pits used for burying bodies. It was hidden well, as it was located in the woods. Jews worked as tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters there, and they were also employed as construction workers. However, workers at Treblinka were limited, as the main purpose of this camp was to exterminate the Jews. This extermination camp was situated near a train stop, where SS guards ordered the Jews off the trains and into the camp. Many attempts of escape were made, and resistance was formed as well, but very few survived those attempts. See: “Treblinka.” Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Israel Gutman. Vol. 4. N.p.: Macmillian, 1990. 185-90. Print.
 The Germans occupied Lodz, Poland in 1939 and set up the Lodz Ghetto in February 1940. By March of 1940, the majority of the Jews from Lodz were moved into the ghetto (in pre-war Lodz, about 1/3 of its population were Jews). The Jews of the Lodz Ghetto lived in isolation as the German guards surrounded the ghetto and were violent towards those who tried to escape or smuggle food. The inhabitants lived in poor, cramped conditions. See: “Lodz.” The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust.Ed. Guy Miron and Shlomit Shulhani. Vol. 1. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, 2009. 403-12. Print.
 An extermination camp within the larger camp called Auschwitz–Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp during WWII. See: “Auschwitz.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/auschwitz>.
 Concentration camp in Nazi Germany, established in 1943. 500 Jewish prisoners were sent from 2 separate camps to build this camp. Bergen-Belsen held 5 separate sections, in which the Jews were divided according to where they were from. See: “Bergen-Belsen.” Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Israel Gutman. Vol. 1. N.p.: Macmillian, 1990. 185-90. Print.
 DPs were people who, after the war, refused to return to their original homes either out of fear of “retribution, economic deprivation, or annihilation,” or free will. DPs included survivors of concentration camps, labor camps, and extermination camps. Many DPs congregated at DP camps in the hopes of emigrating from Europe to escape antisemitism among other things. DPs in the DP camps were not treated fairly; there was inadequate housing and medical assistance, as well as an insufficient source of clothing. It was difficult for families to reunite. See: “Displaced Persons, Jewish.” Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Israel Gutman. Vol. 1. N.p.: Macmillian, 1990. 1481-87. Print.