Rivka Chowles was born on February 10, 1928 in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania) to Chava Leah Bruskin and Moshe Chwoles. She had five siblings: Rafael, b. 1913, Sonja, b. 1918, Helka, b. 1922, Rochhka (Rachel), b. 1925, and Chlowa (Lalka), b. 1930. The Chowles family were orthodox Jews and attended synagogue regularly. Rivka attended a public elementary school and the Technician High School where she studied decoration, composition and painting. Her brother, Rafael, was recognized as an extremely gifted artist at an early age and by 1940, was Director of the Vilna Art School.
In the fall of 1939, the Soviet Union occupied this region of Poland as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and in October, transferred control of the region to Lithuania. Persecution of the Jewish population sharply increased. On June 24, 1941, Vilna was occupied by the Germans and their Einsatzgruppen [killing squads] with the enthusiastic support of the Lithuanians murdered thousands of Jews. The Chwoles family and the other Jews of the town were relocated to the newly established Vilna ghetto in September of 1941. Rivka and her sisters served as forced labor in the airfields. Helka managed to escape and worked for local Christians. However, neighbors became suspicious of her because they thought that she was working too hard for someone they knew was not being paid. The neighbors called the authorities and Helka was arrested.
Rivka and Sonja escaped the ghetto using a borrowed identification card. Rivka left against the wishes of her father. He was extremely religious and told the family that everything would be fine and that God would save them. But one day, when their father went to pray, their mother told them to flee. After leaving the ghetto with the aid of the ID card, they gave it to a friend to use to escape. While waiting for her to return, they stayed with another Christian friend. Their friend never returned and they had to find another source of food and lodging. For a while, they were given refuge in the workshop of a glazier, until he said it was too dangerous and they had to leave. The girls remembered a childhood maid whom they thought would help and went to her. She provided some black bread with worms and hot water; however, she would not let the girls stay with her. They returned to the workshop that night. They next day they heard that the ghetto was being liquidated, so they fled to a nearby village, Kalisz(?). A friend, Itzik Segal, worked as a furrier there and they thought he might provide some help; however, he also turned the girls away. Not long after this, Rivka and Sonja were arrested in the street by the Lithuanians and put into prison. Sonja managed to convince the police that they were Polish and because they did not look Jewish, they were released.
Posing as Christians selling household goods, Rivka and Sonja returned to Kalisz and asked Itzik for help. He let them stay for a week this time. They then found an empty apartment and moved there using false papers they obtained through an acquaintance, Maruissia Wojszwillo. They decided that they would be safer elsewhere, so they moved to another village and found work as maids. Rivka's close friend, Lilka, helped them register as Christians with the authorities. The registration had to be regularly renewed and the trips back and forth were dangerous. This village was very poor and the Poles they were working for were not able to pay them. So the girls moved to another village, Sokoloti(?), where they worked in the fields and took care of livestock.
The area was liberated by the Soviet Army in July 1944. Rivka and Sonja returned to Vilna and eventually were reunited with Rafael. He had been in Minsk, Belarus, for an art show in 1941 when the Germans occupied Vilna and had been unable to return. He had been evacuated to Krasneya Baki, Russia, where he was drafted into the Soviet Army. He spent most of the war working on railroad construction crews for the army. After the war ended in 1945, he claimed that he was not Jewish, and was able to return to Vilna. Their other family members had all been killed during the Holocaust.