Eliach, Yaffa 1935–
ELIACH, Yaffa 1935–
PERSONAL: Born May 31, 1935, in Vilna, Poland (now Lithuania); immigrated to United States, 1954, naturalized citizen, 1957; daughter of Moshe E. (a businessman turned farmer) and Ziporah (a photographer; maiden name, Katz) Ben-Shemesh; married David Eliach (a high school principal), August 12, 1953; children: Yotav, Smadar. Education: Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, B.A., 1967, M.A., 1969; Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, Ph.D., 1973. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home—716 Avenue N., Brooklyn, NY 11230. Office—Department of Judaic Studies, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Bedford Ave. and Avenue H, Brooklyn, NY 11210. Agent—Timothy Seldes, Russell & Volkening, Inc., 551 5th Ave., New York, NY 10176.
CAREER: Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, lecturer, 1969–73, assistant professor, 1973–77, associate professor, 1977–82; professor of history and literature, 1982–; Center for Holocaust Studies, Brooklyn, NY, founder and director, 1974–. Member of President Carter's commission on the Holocaust, 1978–79, President Carter's fact-finding mission to Eastern Europe, 1979, and mayor of New York task force, 1980–.
MEMBER: World Union of Jewish Studies, Association for Jewish Studies, American Academy for Jewish Research, Association of American Professors, Agudat Ha-sofrim.
AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1971–72; Eliach's play, The Last Jew, was selected official drama to commemorate the Holocaust on Heroes & Martyrs Day, 1975, by the Israeli Commission on the Arts; Myrtle Wreath Award, Hadassah, 1979, for humanitarian activities; Christopher Award, 1983, for Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.
The Fisherman's Wife (poems), Ogdan (Jerusalem, Israel), 1965.
(With Uri Assaf) The Last Jew (stage play; first produced in Tel-Aviv, Israel, at Zavta Theatre, April, 1975), Alef-Alef Theatre Publications, 1977.
(Editor, with Brauna Gurewitsch) The Liberators (nonfiction), Center for Holocaust Studies (New York, NY), 1981.
Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1982.
(Editor) We Were Children Just Like You, Center for Holocaust Studies (New York, NY), 1990.
There Once Was a World: A Nine-Hundred-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1998.
SIDELIGHTS: Yaffa Eliach is a Holocaust survivor who founded the Center for Holocaust Studies at the City University of New York. Eliach is also responsible for the "Tower of Life" exhibit at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, which is frequently singled out as one of the museum's most powerful displays. Eliach has also paid tribute to those slain in the Holocaust by memorializing them in books such as Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust and There Once Was a World: A Nine-Hundred-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok.
Eliach's early years were spent in Eishyshok, a 900-year-old Jewish settlement or shtetl in Lithuania. The German armies that had occupied the village in World War I had treated the inhabitants kindly, so many there had almost fond memories of that occupation and were unprepared for the brutality of the Nazi regime. A death squad came to the shtetl in September, 1941, and systematically executed almost all of its inhabitants. The few who managed to escape survived by hiding for the next few years. Yaffa Eliach was among them, and lived with her family for some time in a pit concealed beneath a pigsty. While hiding in this foul place, Eliach's mother taught her Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and Polish. In another hiding spot, they could hear the voices of German officers when their host would allow them into his home. At one point, Eliach's baby brother was smothered by those desperate to stop his cries, which threatened to reveal them all. After the war ended, Eliach's mother and another brother were killed upon returning to their hometown, the victims of Poles who harbored strong anti-Jewish sentiment. Eliach's father was labeled a political criminal by the Russians because of his Zionist views, and was sent by the KGB to a Siberian labor camp. Eliach left Europe with her uncle, who took her to Israel. After marrying, she immigrated with her family to the United States in 1954.
Eliach's books on the Holocaust were written to provide a record of the Jewish perspective on the subject, for, as she told Daisy Maryles in a Publishers Weekly interview, "one of the major problems in teaching Holocaust courses was the lack of a variation in source materials. Much of what was available throughout the early '70s was material based mainly on German documentation and perspective." The Liberators, which Eliach edited with Brauna Gurewitsch in response to this disparity, is a collection of eyewitness accounts of the liberation of the concentration camps taken from both survivors and members of the liberating forces.
Eliach's own belief that "what comes to us from the Holocaust is not despair, but determination" is expressed in Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, a compilation of eighty-nine true stories told in a traditional literary form. After hearing her first Hasidic tale, the story of a rabbi's miraculous escape from death, Eliach concluded that the simple nature of the narrative "made it a most appropriate literary form through which to come to terms with the Holocaust and its aftermath…. The scope of the destruction seemed to leave other genres of the literary tradition of Europe at a loss for words." For the next eight years she collected Holocaust stories of hope, survival, success, and adaptation, verified their accuracy through interviews with participants and witnesses and trips to the concentration camps, and transcribed the traditionally oral tales to print, hoping to illustrate through them, as she relates in the book's foreword, that "despite the unprecedented scope of the mechanized destruction of human lives, Hasidism did not lose its values, its belief in humanity." Among the notable figures appearing in the tales are members of the Halberstam family, Broadway producer Jack Garfein, and Pope John Paul II.
Michael Kernan, writing in the Washington Post, described the tales as "parables perhaps, anecdotes with an upbeat ending" that, "like Japanese paintings and haiku,… suggest." He concluded: "The power of the Hasidic tale, as this book proves, is that in its modest homeliness it somehow can cope with the worst that can happen to a people and help them prevail." A West Coast Review of Books critic found the stories "enormously moving in their simplicity" and commended Eliach's glossary and appendix notes, deeming them "enormously helpful" and a sign of "the vitality of the author's approach." These favorable assessments were echoed by many other reviewers. Leon Wieseltier judged "some of Mrs. Eliach's material … astonishing" in his New Republic critique, and noted that while many of the simple, emotion-filled stories are "hardly bearable," the positive messages inherent in the genre make the work "finally beautiful." Terming Hasidic Tales a "remarkable book," Henry Mietkiewicz, in the Toronto Star, claimed that the narratives "not only … uplift by recording the little miracles of a chaotic world, but [they allow] writer and reader to pose painful questions about the nature and persistence of suffering." Mietkiewicz also applauded Eliach's inclusion of stories about women in the collection, noting, "Unlike most Hasidic anthologies which assign subordinate or background roles to women, this book is largely concerned with their obvious heroism and sacrifice."
Another significant contribution made by Eliach to the legacy of the Holocaust is the "Tower of Life," a three-story room in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, that is filled with some 1500 photos of the inhabitants of Eishyshok. Eliach's inspiration for this project was a desire to keep the victims of the Holocaust from being seen only as victims. Horrible images of starved people, worked to death or herded into gas chambers, naturally dominate much documentation of the Holocaust. Eliach was concerned that those who died also be remembered as lively, happy people who had a rich, full existence until the Nazis entered their world. To this end she devoted considerable time and expense to hunting down and securing photos of former inhabitants of Eishyshok. London Times contributor Jonathan Sacks stated that the memorial "is almost unbearably moving, allowing us to identify with lives cut short, a community extinguished, a way of life destroyed."
The author further memorialized the life of Eishyshok in her book There Once Was a World. This large volume illustrates the life of the shtetl over the course of its 900-year history, as well as its horrific obliteration in just two days. Sacks felt that this book, "massive, meticulous and written with astonishing grace—is a heartbreaking masterpiece."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Eliach, Yaffa, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1982.
Atlantic, November, 1982.
Bloomsbury Review, June-July-August, 1983.
Booklist, September 1, 1998, George Cohen, review of There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok, p. 60.
Buffalo News, November 7, 1982.
Commonweal, April 24, 1987, Mary Gerhart, review of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, p. 251.
Congressional Record, April 12, 1983.
Houston Chronicle, March 7, 1999, Michael J. Bandler, review of There Once Was a World, p. 23.
Library Journal, October 1, 1982, review of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, p. 1871; September 15, 1998, Paul M. Kaplan, review of There Once Was a World, p. 94.
Los Angeles Daily News, November 5, 1982.
New Republic, February 21, 1983.
Newsday, January 2, 1983.
New Statesman, May 31, 1999, Mark Mazower, review of There Once Was a World, p. 45.
New York Times, May 26, 1976.
New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1998, Stephen J. Dubner, review of There Once Was a World, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, November 12, 1982, interview with Yaffa Eliach, p. 6; August 31, 1998, review of There Once Was a World, p. 54; July 29, 2002, "New Dawn: A Triumph of Life after the Holocaust," p. 64.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 7, 1982; May 3, 1997, Patricia Rice, "Memorial Prayers to Be Said Today," p. 28.
San Francisco Chronicle, December 16, 1982.
Shofar, summer, 2001, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, review of There Once Was a World, p. 141.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), December 20, 1998, Edward R. Silverman, review of There Once Was a World, p. 7.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), November 16, 1998, Jill J. Barshay, review of There Once Was a World, p. 1B.
Time, August 20, 1979.
Times (London, England), April 15, 1999, Jonathan Sacks, review of There Once Was a World, p. 40.
Toronto Star, November 14, 1982.
Virginian Pilot, May 3, 1997, Diane Tennant, "A Memorial to Villagers: 'Tower of Life' Creator to Speak about Exhibit," p. E3; June 25, 1998, Lisa French, "Holocaust Survivors Teach Local Teachers to Put a Face on History," p. B9.
Washington Post, January 5, 1983.
West Coast Review of Books, November, 1982.