Obituary: Yaffa Eliach, historian who dedicated herself to study of Holocaust and its victims

Yaffa Eliach, historian of the Holocaust. Born: 31 May, 1937 in Eišiškės, Lithuania. Died: 8 November 2016, in New York, aged 79.

Yaffa Eliach. Picture: AP

Yaffa Eliach, who as a four-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-storey canyon of photographs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, has died at her home in Manhattan. She was 79.

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

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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 Centre for Holocaust Studies at Flatbush in Brooklyn. Though modest in scale, its collection of taped interviews, diaries, letters, photographs and artefacts became a model for dozens of such centres.

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 realised that the victims were portrayed only as bulging-eyed skeletons in ragged striped uniforms, not as the vital people they once were.

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 travelling 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.

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 colour 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.

Eliach ultimately collected 6,000 photographs of townspeople posing at bar mitzvahs, graduations and weddings, and in family groups — accounting for 92 per cent 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.

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 & Co in 1998. It was a non-fiction finalist for the National Book Award and joined her earlier book, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, as among her major contributions.

Menachem Rosensaft, a leader in organisations of survivors’ children said that 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.

Eishyshok, 40 miles from Lithuania’s capital, Vilna — known today as Vilnius — was Polish between the world wars, and it was where Eliach was born Yaffa Sonenson on 31 May 1937. Her father, Moshe, a leather tannery owner, escaped a German round-up in September 1941 by jumping from 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. Eliach’s mother and Hayyim were shot dead by the partisans. 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 a Jewish high school in Lawrence, New York; 14 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

After the war, Eliach travelled to Palestine with an uncle and was 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 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 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.”

Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT 
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