Thatch, Riva and Thatch, Benesh
Kaunas, Vilna (Lithuania), Slobodka, Stutthof, Dachau, Landsberg
Mr. Thatch’s Orthodox family consisted of seven, his parents and five children, of which he was the fourth. Of an extended family of more than 20, only he, his wife, one child and one brother survived. They lived in Kaunas, Lithuania where 30% of the 40,000 inhabitants were Jewish. His parents worked from 5:00 am to 10:00 pm but Friday afternoon transformed them all as the weekday activities gave way to Shabbos preparations. His mother became a princess and his father a king.
Since there was no public school, he went to Hebrew school. While there was some anti-Semitism before the war, it became more severe when he went to college where he was physically threatened by fellow students. It grew worse in 1937-38 after he had graduated with a degree in law. It became impossible for young Jewish lawyers to earn a living.
Mrs. Thatch’s mother was a widow from Vilna and they lived with her brother who was a window trimmer. They had no other relatives and knew nothing of their mother’s or father’s families. Mrs. Thatch also was Orthodox, a Zionist and went to Hebrew school. She, too, attended the university and wanted to be a gym teacher.
When the war broke out they were on their honeymoon 15 miles from town. They were swimming and saw military maneuvers.
While they knew what was going on in Europe, they didn’t believe Hitler would come to Lithuania. The war started (in Lithuania) on June 22, 1941 and it was impossible to leave the country. Even before the Germans came and began killing Jews, Lithuanians killed 500 for no apparent reason.
They stayed in locked houses with locked gates and thought they would be protected, especially since an older Christian man who was very protective worked for them. In August 1941 they were ordered to the ghetto in Slobodka, taking only what they could carry. They lived in an apartment (two rooms and a kitchen) with two other families. They thought it was temporary and expected the war to be over soon.
Jews were not allowed outside past 7:00 pm, had to wear yellow stars and could only walk in the street. They had to report at 8:00 am for the labor brigade. They accepted all this because during WWI the German Army rescued Jews, were friendly and helpful. Besides, they had been raised in German culture and philosophy and thought they would not dream of hurting anyone, especially Jews. Dr. Elkes headed the Judenrat.
Before the war, Mrs. Thatch had a maid. Now, she had to do housework, learn to cook and clean—and she was pregnant. Their rations consisted of bread, beans, and cabbage. They traded by going out through the wire fence. She didn’t know that her mother and three brothers were in the “resistance.” One of her brothers had been a famous soccer player and another a boxer.
When her baby was born, they brought the doctor from the main gate. He had cleaned latrines that day. It was a hard birth, “a breach.” The baby was named “Aviva,” the daughter of spring. She was born in March.
In the ghetto, Mr. Thatch administered a workshop which made clothes, shoes, and underwear. There were also cultural and religious activities. People studied together, orchestras gave concerts and arranged shows in connection with the holidays.
People disappeared from the ghetto as the Germans “thinned” the population. The Germans said that they needed 500 smart people and 700 were found. They chose only the best. After the war they found out that the 500 were killed 20 miles away. A German Jew asked forgiveness and said what was going on was not true. Afterwards, when she found out it was true, she committed suicide. In the last days of the ghetto, the Germans moved 10,000 people from the ghetto in one day and said they would go to where they would not have to work. Later they were told that they had been killed.
People began hiding in the ghetto and the Germans checked with bloodhounds, house-to-house, and killed with grenades. People who were evacuated went toward Germany. The Germans were taking away children and older people. The Thatches had a couch and behind the couch was a dug-out under the floor. Mrs. Thatch and Aviva would hide there.
However, they had no money and Mrs. Thatch asked a woman at work who said her sister-in-law would take Aviva. So, in March, 1944, Mrs. Thatch gave her two-year-old daughter to a Christian woman. They drugged Aviva and put her in a sack with food for the horse.
The Germans were liquidating the ghetto and the Thatches were forced into cattle cars. They became separated: Mrs. Thatch went to Stutthof (Sztutowo) where Mr. Thatch’s mother and sister were. There were mountains of shoes and a bad smell. She was not there long. They were given numbers (but did not get tattoos), were deloused and given striped uniforms. She then sent to labor camp with her mother where five hundred women slept on straw in ten tents.
One night near the end of the war, the Germans woke them up to march because the Russians were near. Mrs. Thatch never heard about her child. They started marching January 1, 1945. It was the coldest recorded winter in Europe. People were falling and getting shot. They came to a barn where Germans were eating and drinking outside. She went inside and it was pitch dark. She pretended to go to the lavatory and started walking. After an hour she came to a hut and a woman said she could stay. At this she said “We were free!” She gave her blankets and warm straw.
Mrs. Thatch went back and got her mother. They stayed in the hut with the woman and then they were liberated by the Russians who hired her as a translator.
Meanwhile, Mr. Thatch was in Dachau. He was moved to a labor camp in Landsberg with fifty people in each cabin. They wore striped clothing and got up at 4:30 am. He worked pouring concrete for an underground factory. Breakfast was bread, cold coffee and soup while dinner was coffee and another piece of bread. His health slowly deteriorated.
Before they were liberated, they were forced to march toward Austrian Alps. They were led by Germans and walked through the woods for three or four days without food. He was liberated by Patton’s Seventh Army.
Mrs. Thatch was liberated with her mother who went back to Lithuania and found her daughter. They lived for five years in Munich after liberation. She had a child born in Germany and another born in America.
She studied to become a Hebrew teacher and talk about the Holocaust. She made this tape because she wants the world to know. Mr. Thatch attributes his survival to luck but is ashamed of other members of the human race.
Interviewer: Esther Wine
Date: October 22, 1986
Format: Video Recording