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‘Perpetuating the Light’:  A Tribute to Professor Yaffa Eliach, a”h, on Her Shloshim

Since the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC in 1993, over 40 million visitors have walked through its portals and viewed the “Tower of Life.” A haunting, three-story canyon of 1500 photographs, the “Tower” sums up the greatest lifetime achievement of Professor Yaffa Eliach: that of commemorating the Holocaust through the “celebration of life.” Professor Eliach passed away in New York City on November 8, 2016 at the age of 79. In contrast to the Holocaust scholars who preceded her, who were concerned with recording the efficiency of the Nazi death machine and the torment and annihilation of the victims, Eliach was intent on giving the victims faces and happy histories.

Her travels to collect the photographs of the former residents of her native shtetl Eishyshok, a Lithuanian town not far from Vilna, took Eliach to the 50 states as well as to far-flung corners of the world, over the course of 15 years. Her mission to collect as many photographs as possible of the 3,500 Jewish victims of the town murdered by the Nazis began in 1987, on her visit to the mass grave in Eishyshok. “I stood at the mass grave where my family and the Jews of Eishyshok were buried, but I did not feel like I was standing at a grave. They were talking to me, and they were saying ‘Show the world that we were normal people.’” And so she did.

Eliach ultimately collected 6,000 photographs, roughly of 92 percent of the shtetl’s inhabitants, and displayed them in the Tower as happy and vibrant, young and old, living normal, joyful lives, celebrating life cycles such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, births and graduations. She shows them rollicking through nature, swimming, sledding, biking, playing ball and boating. She was determined to give them back their grace and humanity.

Once, while searching for photographs, diaries and letters in Israel, she knocked on 42 doors of an apartment building in hopes of tracking down a family who she was told had buried memorabilia under a palm tree in their shtetl. In Australia, she announced her search for a family known as “the Mice” on a local radio station and was successfully directed to them. In a rough neighborhood in Detroit, she hired security guards to escort her to a former synagogue, which she was told housed some treasures. On some occasions, she was forced to bribe families with items such as color TVs to persuade them to temporarily part with their photographs so that she could reproduce them. Her project was funded with over $600,000 of her own money and loans until it was finally supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Eliach, born Shainaleh Sonenson, was only 6 years old when the Nazis stormed into her home town on Rosh Hashanah in 1941. Over the course of the two-day chag and Tzom Gedaliah, the majority of the town’s Jews, men, women and children, were rounded up and murdered. Eliach’s parents, together with their daughter and two sons, escaped the roundup by hiding in forests, barns and eventually in a pit beneath a pigsty for two years. It was there that her father Moshe taught her the Hebrew alphabet, which he drew for her on the earthen walls of the sty.

Another baby boy was born to the family while in hiding. After liberation by the Russians in 1944, the family returned to their hometown only to be set upon by the anti-Semitic Polish partisan party, which stormed into their home and shot Mrs. Sonenson and her newborn. As her mother fell atop her, Eliach was saved. After her father was deported to Siberia, where he remained for 14 years, Eliach wandered Europe with her uncle. They eventually made their way to Palestine, where Eliach was enrolled in the Mizrachi high school in Kfar Batya. It was there, at the age of 18, that she married David Eliach, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite. They subsequently moved to the United States where Eliach had two children and completed her studies with a Ph.D. in Russian history from City College.

In 1974, as a young instructor of Jewish History at Brooklyn College, Eliach realized that most of her students were either children of Holocaust survivors or even survivors themselves. It was at this point that she began her small Center for Holocaust Studies, Documentation and Research, preserving the testimonies gathered by her students in their interviews with relatives and friends and placing them in an archive available to the public.This pioneering effort was new on the Holocaust stage and began attracting the attention of academics worldwide. Eventually, the center was moved to the Yeshiva of Flatbush where Eliach’s husband was principal. Finally, the thousands of testimonies, memoirs and diaries collected by Eliach and her staff became one of the most important components of New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage upon Eliach’s retirement in 2003.

In keeping with her mission of perpetuating the “light,” rather than only the darkness of the period, Eliach authored her famous “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” in 1988. During her extensive interviews with rebbes and rabbis, always accompanied by a male graduate student, Eliach collected uplifting stories of exemplary courage and emunah. In one often-cited story, “Good Morning, Herr Mueller,” she tells of a Hasidic rebbe who was rounded up with his townspeople and sent to Auschwitz. One day, during a selection, a Nazi guard spotted him in the mass of victims and motioned to him to walk to the side. As the guard approached the skeletal rebbe, he whispered, “Every morning for years you greeted me as I worked in the fields with a warm greeting, ‘Good morning, Herr Meuller.’ In appreciation, I will save you from a horrible fate.”

In 1998, Eliach published her 900-year chronicle of the shtetl of Eishyshok, entitled “There Once Was a World.” In this momentous tome of 800+ pages, Eliach records the stories of the residents, their experiences during the war and in some cases their eventual survival and resettlement. Their stories are accompanied by many of the pictures she collected on her journey of preservation.

Petite in stature, charming in demeanor and gigantic in accomplishment, Eliach will be sorely missed by her family and the Jewish community she enlightened. She is survived by her husband, Rabbi David Eliach, former Principal of the Flatbush Joel Braverman High School; her daughter, Rebbetzin Smadar Rosensweig, Professor of Judaic Studies at Stern College of Yeshiva University; her son, Rabbi Yotav Eliach, Principal of Rambam Yeshiva High School in Lawrence, Long Island; 14 grandchildren; and 9 great-grandchildren. Yehi zichrah baruch!

By Pearl Markovitz

 

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