Eliach, Yaffa

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Nationality: American (originally Russian: immigrated to Palestine, 1946, to the United States, 1954). Born: Yaffa Sonensohn, Vilna, 31 May 1937. Education: Brooklyn College, New York, 1957-69, B.A. 1967, M.A. 1969; City University of New York, 1969-73, Ph.D. in Russian intellectual history 1973. Family: Married David Eliach in 1953; one son and one daughter. Career: Since 1969 professor of history and literature, Department of Judaic Studies, Brooklyn College. Drama director, Camp Massad, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, 1954-80; founder and volunteer director, Center for Holocaust Studies, Brooklyn, 1974-90; since 1999 founder and president, Shtetl Foundation, New York. Lecturer. Awards: Woodrow Wilson dissertation fellowship, 1971-72; Myrtle Wreath award for humanitarian activities (with Joseph Papp), 1979; Christopher award, 1982, for Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust; Guggenheim fellowship and Louis E. Yavner award, both in 1987; Women's Branch of the Orthodox Jewish Congregation of America's "Distinguished Woman of Achievement," 1989; AMIT Women's Rambam award, 1990; award of accomplishment, 1994, and National Holocaust Education award, 1995, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations; CBSTV "Woman of the Year," 1995; Brooklyn College Alumna of the Year award, 1998; Eternal Flame award, 1999. Honorary doctorates: Yeshiva University, New York; Spertus College, Chicago. Agent: Miriam Altshuler, 53 Old Post Road, Red Hook, New York 12571, U.S.A.


Memoir (and history)

There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok. 1998.


The Last Jew: A Play in Four Acts, with Uri Assaf (producedTel-Aviv, 1975). 1977.


Eshet ha-dayag [The Fisherman's Wife]. 1965.


Jewish Hasidim, Russian Sectarian Non-conformists in the Ukraine, 1700-1760 (dissertation). 1973.

Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (history). 1982.

We Were Children Just Like You (photo history). 1990.

The Shtetl Children (photo history). 2001.

Editor, with Brana Gurewitsch, The Liberators: Eyewitness Accounts of the Liberation of Concentration Camps: Oral History Testimonies of American Liberators from the Archives of the Center for Holocaust Studies. 1981.

Contributor to encyclopedias.


Film Adaptations:

There Once Was a Town (documentary), 2000, from There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok.

Critical Study:

"Collector of Souls: Y. Eliach's Tower of Faces Honoring Jews of Ejszyszki, Poland at the Holocaust Memorial Museum" by Marjorie Rosen, in People Weekly, 41, 17 January 1994, pp. 36-39.

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Yaffa Eliach was born in the town of Eisysky, near Vilna, Poland (now Lithuania). A survivor of the Holocaust, she has dedicated her life to Holocaust studies. She was a member of President Jimmy Carter's Commission on the Holocaust in 1978-79 and accompanied his fact-finding mission to Eastern Europe in 1979. She founded and served as director of the Center for Holocaust Studies in Brooklyn, New York. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Judaica, The Women's Studies Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Hasidism. She has been a frequent lecturer at numerous conferences and educational venues and has appeared on television several times in documentaries and interviews. In the Observer (London) Eliach stated, "I feel my generation … is the last link with the Holocaust." In the Jerusalem Post Eliach stated, "Don't teach about dead Jews; bring the Jews back to life." She has devoted a major part of her life to education on the Holocaust, and she has been especially adept at educating children and teachers on Holocaust.

Eliach's personal experience as a survivor of the Holocaust lends to her firsthand knowledge of the struggle to survive and the aftermath of this great tragedy. During a two-day period in 1941 more than 5,000 Jews of her shtetl of Eisyshok were massacred by the German army. Only 720 Jews survived, with Eliach's family being among them. She relates her harrowing experience in Once There Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eisyshok (1998). She recounts the vivid, colorful religious life of her shtetl, whose inhabitants were so well-treated by the German army during World War I that they saw no reason to fear the Germans in 1941. This work is not without controversy, for Polish groups have greatly criticized Eliach's treatment of the Poles in these memoirs. In memory of her village, however, Eliach created the Tower of Life, a permanent exhibit for the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Eliach has devoted herself to the preservation of memory of the Holocaust. Through her literature and her historical documentation she has sought to provide a Jewish viewpoint on the Holocaust—specifically a perspective from a survivor's vantage point. She has also preserved her memories (via lecture) on video and audiocassettes. In Life of the U.S. Holocaust Museum Eliach speaks of her creation of the Tower of Life and her motivation for its development. In On the Threshold between Personal and Collective Memory Eliach discusses the lack of ability of Jews to keep personal records of their suffering during the Shoah; therefore, she concludes, there is a need to rely on one's personal memory and to combine it into collective memory in order to avoid a repetition of history. She relates her experiences during the Holocaust in the audio recording The Mystery of Good and Evil and emphasizes the necessity of educating children on preventing such horrors in the future. A documentary entitled There Once Was a Town is based on her chronicle of Eisyshok and is narrated by Ed Asner, a descendant of Eisyshok families. She is a pioneer in Jewish women's studies, and as Helen Epstein states in The International Research Institute on Jewish Women, " There Once Was a World is not only encyclopedic in scope, but mainstreams the life of women—rebbetzins, traveling peddlers, seamstresses, bath house attendants, child brides, mothers-inlaw—in a way that was not possible before the advent of Jewish studies." Eliach has also built a replica of her shtetl Eisyshok in Israel, complete with synogogue and an immense learning center on shtetl life.

Eliach's relentless effort to recount her life and the lives of others has provided much material used in courses on the Holocaust. Her desire to preserve memory has made her one of the foremost contributors to Holocaust documentation.

—Cynthia A. Klíma

See the essays on Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust and The Last Jew.