Yaffa Eliach was born and lived in the town of Eisysky,(Ejszyszki, Ei?i?kes) near Vilna, Poland (now Lithuania)until she was four years old, when the shtetl was occupied by the Germans in June 1941. She survived the Holocaust in Ghetto Radun and in hiding places in forests and pits in the Eishyshok vicinity. She was liberated in July 1944, and immigrated to Palestine in 1946, and later to the U.S. in 1954. She received her BA ('67), MA ('69), and Ph.D.('73) from City University of New York in Russian intellectual history, studying under Saul Lieberman and Salo Baron. 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'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.
Prof Eliach is the author of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (Oxford University Press). Derived from interviews and oral histories, these eighty-nine original Hasidic tales about the Holocaust provide unprecedented witness, in a traditional idiom, to the victims' inner experience of "unspeakable" suffering. This volume constitutes the first collection of original Hasidic tales to be published in a century.
According to Chaim Potok, Hasidic Tales is "An important work of scholarship and a sudden clear window onto the heretofore sealed world of the Hasidic reaction to the Holocaust. Its true stories and fanciful miracle tales are a profound and often poignant insight into the souls of those who suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis and who managed somehow to use that very suffering as the raw material for their renewed lives." And, as Robert Lifton wrote "Yaffa Eliach provides us with stories that are wonderful and terrible -- true myths. We learn how people, when suffering dying, and surviving can call forth their humanity with starkness and clarity. She employs her scholarly gifts only to connect the tellers of the tales, who bear witness, to the reader who is stunned and enriched."
"In the soaring, three-story space that is the Tower of Life at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sixteen hundred photographs collected by the historian Yaffa Eliach give face to a murdered people. In There Once Was a World, Eliach brilliantly and movingly records the history of that people.Nineteen years of scholarship, a poet's ear, and a storyteller's voice have yielded what is perhaps the richest, fullest, most detailed portrait of Eastern European Jewish life that we will ever have, a book that encompasses both the sweep of history and an intimate view of the day-to-day lives of generations of small-town Jews, in all their uniqueness and universality. Eliach's own roots in Eishyshok, as a descendant of one of the five founding families and herself one of only twenty-nine survivors, give her work an unrivaled depth and passion.
Two million visitors a year enter the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where 1,600 photographs from the shtetl of Eishyshok constitute what many consider to be the most moving exhibit in the museum - the Tower of Life. In this soaring, three-story space we see the people of Eishyshok at their weddings and bar mitzvahs, their social clubs and literary gatherings, their winter sports and summer camps. Now Professor Yaffa Eliach, whose haunting collection of photographs gave faces to a murdered people, has written the history of that people.
Eliach's nine-century saga of Eastern European Jewish life is richer and fuller than any ever written. Her research took her from family attics on six continents to state archives no scholar had seen since the start of the Cold War. Confronted with the near total disappearance of the world of the shtetl, Eliach was indefatigable in her search for the truth-of a people, a place, a culture.
Some of what she found was as familiar as the chicken soup on a Jewish table, or an image from a painting by Chagall; other findings were more unexpected. Her research on family life, for example, shows that the "world of our fathers" was actually a world in which all the affairs of daily life were run by mothers. Her profound understanding of medieval history illuminates her description of early Lithuania, the last pagan country in Europe and the only one where Jews lived on equal terms with the rest of the population. Access to family letters ,and memorabilia and interviews with shtetl survivors gave her startling insight into one of history's most troubling questions: Why were the Jews so blind to the Nazi threat? In Eishyshok, she learned, as in hundreds of communities in Eastern Europe, the German occupiers of World War I had been so civilized that no one could believe their sons would be any different. Yet the June day in 1941 when Nazi troops roared into Eishyshok marked the beginning of the end for the shtetls 3,500 Jews.
In this book, as in her Tower, Eliach has sought to emphasize life over death. Nineteen years of scholarship, a poet's ear, and a storyteller's voice have yielded a book that contains both the sweep of history and an intimate portrait of the day-to-day lives of generations of small-town Jews, in all their uniqueness and universality. But it is Eliach's own roots in Eishyshok, as descendant of one of the five founding families and one of only twenty-nine survivors, which give her work its depth and passion."