“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel

Yaffa Eliach, Historian Who Captured Faces of the Holocaust, Dies at 79

Yaffa Eliach in her “Tower of Faces” exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Credit Associated Press

Yaffa Eliach, who as a 4-year-old survived the Nazi massacres of Jews in her Lithuanian town, and went on to document their daily life in a kaleidoscopic book and a haunting, three-story canyon of photographs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, died on Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 79.

Her death, after a long illness, was confirmed by Thea Wieseltier, a family friend.

After a childhood that might have throttled a person of lesser spine, Professor Eliach (pronounced EL-ee-akh) dedicated herself to the study and memorialization of the Holocaust and its victims.

Starting in 1969, she did so as a professor of history and literature in the department of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College, and by founding the pioneering Center for Holocaust Studies at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn. Though modest in scale, its collection of taped interviews, diaries, letters, photographs and artifacts became a model for dozens of such centers.

Her mission, she said many times, was to document the victims’ lives, not just their deaths, to give them back their grace and humanity. She determined to do so as a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust during a visit to the death camps, where she realized that the victims were portrayed only as bulging-eyed skeletons in ragged striped uniforms, not as the vital people they once were.

Professor Eliach decided to recreate the shtetl she had known in Lithuania — Eisiskes, known in Yiddish as Eishyshok — where 3,500 Jews, almost the entire Jewish population, were killed, by collecting photographs of its inhabitants.

Starting with a nucleus of family photos she and her older brother had squirreled away in hiding, she spent 15 years traveling to all 50 states and many countries searching for photographs, diaries and letters of other shtetl residents.

In Israel, she knocked on 42 doors of an apartment building to track down one family and unearthed a cache of material buried in cans under a palm tree. In Australia, she told a radio station that she was searching for a family known as “the Mice” and was fortunate to get a tip from a caller.

Professor Eliach with her father, Moshe Sonenson. Credit The Shtetl Foundation, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives

She hired security guards to help her gather materials in a former synagogue in a rough section of Detroit. And in several cases she resorted to a kind of bribery — medication, a color TV, four jogging suits — to persuade families to part with precious photographs temporarily so that she could reproduce them. She spent more than $600,000 of her own money and loans, then supported the project with a Guggenheim fellowship.

Professor Eliach ultimately collected 6,000 photographs of townspeople posing at bar mitzvahs, graduations and weddings, and in family groups — accounting for 92 percent of the village’s slaughtered Jews.

Some 1,500 were selected for the Holocaust museum’s “Tower of Faces,” sometimes called a “Tower of Life,” where photographs are arranged in a narrow, soaring chasm that visitors walk through. The faces render the lives of so many ordinary Jews intimate and vibrant. By 2016, 40 million people had visited the museum since its opening in 1993.

Professor Eliach assembled hundreds of the photographs and oral histories into an 818-page book, “There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok,” published by Little, Brown & Company in 1998. It was a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award and joined her earlier book, “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust,” as among her major contributions.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a leader in organizations of survivors’ children, said that Professor Eliach had made the Holocaust a subject both “accessible and kosher” for Orthodox Jews after years in which it had “presented far too many theological problems,” like how God could allow such things to happen.

Professor Eliach feeding chickens near Eisiskes. Credit The Shtetl Foundation, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives

Eishyshok, 40 miles from Lithuania’s capital, Vilna — known today as Vilnius — was Polish between the world wars, and it was where Professor Eliach was born Yaffa Sonenson on May 31, 1937. Her father, Moshe, a leather tannery owner, escaped a German roundup in September 1941 by jumping out a synagogue window. He took his wife, Zipporah; Yaffa; an older brother, Yitzhak; and a baby brother, Hayyim, into hiding. In two days, almost all the town’s Jews were shot to death in front of open pits.

In a secret loft in the ghetto of Radun, Yaffa’s baby brother was suffocated by other refugees who had clamped a hand over his face so that his cries would not betray them. In a pit under a pigsty on a farm owned by Christians, her mother gave birth to another boy, also named Hayyim. There Yaffa studied Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish, using the pit’s clay walls as a blackboard.

The family managed to survive until the area’s liberation in July 1944, but when they returned to Eishyshok, fighting broke out between Polish partisans and Soviet soldiers. Professor Eliach’s mother and Hayyim were shot to death by the partisans. Professor Eliach contended that anti-Semitic Poles had done so deliberately, though the charge was disputed.

She is survived by her husband, David, a former principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School; a daughter, Smadar Rosensweig, a professor of Judaic studies at Stern College in Manhattan; a son, Rabbi Yotav Eliach, the principal of Rambam Mesivta, a Jewish high school in Lawrence, N.Y.; 14 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

After the war, Professor Eliach traveled to Palestine with an uncle and eventually reunited with her father and brother. She immigrated to the United States in 1954 and received her doctorate from the City University of New York in 1973.

The closing image of “There Once Was a World” is of Professor Eliach’s father in Israel dancing at the wedding of her daughter. Although his faith had been shattered, he was pleased that she was documenting their shtetl so that, as Professor Eliach wrote, capturing his words, “at least the people, and perhaps even God, will remember that there once was a world filled with faith, Judaism and humanity.”

Design by Gauntt • Programming by Beckett

wordpress stats plugin

Copyright © 2012 ThemeBlossom.com. All Rights Reserved