Houston’s Survivors

Rikki Roussos*

Born: Rivka Atias
July 20, 1927
Sarajevo, Yugoslavia
Died: November 8, 2016

“Everybody was thinking that Germany is going to lose the war, that it’s going to finish very quick. I remember with the little money that we had at home, we went out, we bought backpacks and high-top shoes and we are ready to go to a concentration camp. Big deal. We are going for a couple of weeks and all is going to be over. But it didn’t work like that, really.”

“I had a very, very happy childhood,” recalled Riki Roussos. Her family lived simply but contentedly in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. “There was a lot of love to go around to substitute, probably, for the material things we didn’t have.”

Riki was several months shy of her fourteenth birthday when Germany and its allies, Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary, invaded and dismembered Yugoslavia in April 1941. Her father Isaac, a carpenter who worked as a civil servant, lost his job immediately. Although the family had to rely on relatives to support them, they managed to stay together until October 1941 when a knock on the door awakened them in the middle of the night. German SS officers had come to arrest Isaac and Daniel, Riki’s 17-year-old brother.

Riki and her younger brother Samuel hid with their mother in a cold and cramped basement for several months before making their way—disguised as Muslims—to Mostar, which was in the Italian-occupied zone. The Italian occupation forces treated the Yugoslav Jews benignly, resisting German pressure to surrender them. Instead, Italian authorities assembled thousands of Jews in the Rab Island camp, off the Dalmatian coast. Riki and her family were sent to the camp early in 1943.

When Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in September of that year, Germany took control of Rab. Under the protection of Yugoslav partisans, Riki and her family, together with hundreds of other Jewish refugees, escaped from the island just before German forces arrived. The family made its way to the mainland, traveling on foot to Bania Luka where they lived among the partisans until the end of the war.

After liberation, Riki and her family were eager to return to Sarajevo to search for Isaac and Daniel. They discovered that both had been murdered at the camp of Jasenovac. Determined to build a new life for herself, Riki emigrated to Israel in 1949 with her brother, mother and grandmother. Riki married Mordechai Roussos, a survivor from Greece, in 1950. Their son Eli arrived the following year and daughter Sarah was born in 1952.

Pursuing Mordechai’s longtime dream, the family came to the United States in 1962. They settled in Columbus, Ohio where Riki earned a degree in business administration and worked as a department store manager. In 1977, Riki and Mordechai moved to Houston to be near their grown children. Riki remained active, exercising daily and volunteering regularly at Seven Acres Geriatric Center and in the library at Holocaust Museum Houston. She often spoke to groups about her experiences, never failing to move and inspire her listeners.

Isaac Atias, d. Jasenovac, 1942
Esther Atias, survived

Daniel, d. Jasenovac, 1942
Samuel, survived