Women Shaping History:
Professor Yaffa Eliach:
Ardent Advocate of Humanity
in a Post-Holocaust World
Like Purim, the March holiday that celebrates one of Judaism’s favorite heroines, Esther, an orphan who daringly, and with charm and determination, went, unsummoned, to Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to tell him of a plot to destroy the Jews, the story of Yaffa Eliach recounts the heroic deeds of a woman who would save her people by enlisting besides other Jews the aid of non-Jews, as she did Pope John Paul II, to keep alive the trials and spirit of the Jewish people in a world with short memory and continuing anti-Semitism. Because she suffered as a young girl—but lived—Yaffa’s tale bears an even greater educative value perhaps than Anne Frank’s, about how to endure and triumph after tragedy. New York State mandates that the Holocaust be taught as part of the social studies curriculum, but it does not indicate how much time should be spent or describe the nature of instruction. Nor does it imply that study of Jewish heritage be as important as study of the Holocaust.
Yaffa Eliach, a survivor with a horrific past that began at the age of four when she and her family went into hiding in 1944—her mother and a baby brother were murdered by a Polish mob, their bodies thrown on top of her, her father sent to Siberia—somehow came through with a commitment to commemorate the Jewish people in a positive way rather than with a descent into cynicism or depression. Her story, which she tells often around the world and writes about constantly (Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust and the award-winning There Once Was a World: A 900 Year Chronicle Of the Town of Eishyshok) continues to gain widening attention, particularly as it is presented as part of a larger photographic and cinematic archive, much of it incorporated into her new Museum: The Shtetl: The Living History Museum of the Jewish World, about life prior to the Shoah.
Professor Eliach, who has held numerous university appointments, in addition to being for years, professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, is involved in just about every major institutional initiative to bear witness, but her own particular interest is in telling the story of the Holocaust by putting it in the larger context of Jewish history and by emphasizing the plight and the courage of the surviving Jewish children who were its victims many times over: the Nazis wanted to kill them, seeing that they could not use younger ones to work in the camps. Later, the children who survived found themselves alone, burdens to many who would want to help them, including impoverished members of their own families. Indeed, says Professor Eliach, telling the story of the survival of the Jewish people from the perspective of children, and noting the compassionate Christians who hid them, at great risk, emphasizes the common bonds between Jews and non-Jews. Amazingly, she says, so many of those children, despite horrific events, came through, as she did, with a “positive attitude “ toward life. She attributes much of her fortitude to the teachings of her beloved father, a religious Jew. She prayed back then when she was a child. And she lived, the only one among many others, in the forests of the night.
Teaching is, obviously, important to her. She engages her students in interviewing their parents and grandparents, telling them to collect photos and texts and to make videos and audiotapes of the immigrant experience. It’s amazing, she says, what such a prompt unearths. Students tell her that they never knew, until such a project, who they were, where they came from, what their heritage means. Some youngsters in fact discover they have Jewish roots. It is for them, perhaps, even more than for Jews, that she has created her latest exhibit “Pope John Paul II [Karol Wojtyla] and the Jewish People” in addition to her contribution to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, the “Tower of Life.” The name says it all. So does her life story.#
Inquiries should be addressed to Dr. Eliach at museum@shtetlfoundationor by writing toShtetl Foundation, 300 E. 54th St, Suite 23K; New York, NY 10022.