Yaffa Eliach (b. Yaffa Sonenson, Eišiškės, (Yiddish: אישישוק/Eishyshok) 31 May 1937) is a historian, author, and scholar of Judaic Studies and the Holocaust. She is probably best known for creating the “Tower of Life” made up by 1,500 photographs for permanent display at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Yaffa Eliach was born Yaffa Sonenson to a Jewish family in Eishyshok near Vilna, now Eišiškės, Lithuania, a small town inhabited roughly in equal numbers by Jews and Poles until the Holocaust, where she lived until she was four years old. When the town was occupied by the Germans in June 1941 and most of the Jewish population was murdered by the Germans and Lithuanians, she and her family hid and survived in hiding places in the Eishyshok vicinity. Upon returning to Eishyshok after the arrival of the soviet forces in 1944, her mother and a brother were killed when the village, now occupied by the soviet army and security services (NKVD) was attacked by the Polish Home Army (AK) attempting to liberate Polish soldiers arrested by the soviet occupying forces. The Sonensons were hosting an officer of SMIERSH, soviet counter-intelligence (Yaffa Sonenson's father joined the soviet NKVD forces and helped them fight and arrest the Polish resistance, becoming a levtenant). The Russian officer and several of his soldiers fired on the arriving Home Army from the Sonensons' house and as a result of a short exchange of fire there were at least three civilian casualties, a Polish woman and two above-mentioned Sonenson's family mambers . Later Yaffa Eliach accused the Polish Home Army of antisemitic motivation of the attack, however, her interpretation was found groundless by Polish historians as well as reputed Israeli scholars, including professor I.Gutman ("Znak", July, 2000).
Eliach emigrated to Palestine in 1946, and later to the United States in 1954. She received her BA in 1967 and her MA in 1969 from Brooklyn College, New York and a Ph.D. in 1973 from City University of New York in Russian intellectual history, studying under Saul Lieberman and Salo Baron.
Since 1969, Eliach was professor of history and literature in the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, and founded and served as director of the Center for Holocaust Studies in Brooklyn. 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 has been a frequent lecturer at numerous conferences and educational venues and has appeared on television several times in documentaries and interviews. She has written several books and has contributed to Encyclopaedia Judaica, The Women's Studies Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Hasidism.
Eliach has devoted herself to the preservation of memory of the Holocaust specifically from the perspective of a survivor's vantage point. She has also preserved her memories (via lecture) on video and audiocassettes. Her research has provided much material used in courses on the Holocaust in the United States.
Eliach thinks her generation “is the last link with the Holocaust”, and considers it her responsibility to document the tragedy in terms of life, not death, bringing the Jews back to life. In memory of her native Eishyshok she has written Once There Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok (1998), recounting the colorful Jewish life of Eishyshok. Also in memory of the town, Eliach created the “Tower of Life”, a permanent exhibit which contains approximately 1,500 photos of Jews in Eishyshok before the arrival of the Germans for the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C..
In 1953, Eliach married David Eliach, now principal emeritus of the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. She has a daughter, Smadar Rosensweig, Professor of History at Touro College (NYC), and a son, Yotav Eliach, the principal of Rambam Mesivta High School. She has 14 grandchildren, including Itamar Rosensweig.
Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust
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."
Honours and 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; Keene State College, 2003
- Eishet ha-Dayag [Hebrew; The Fisherman's Wife]. 1965.
- The Last Jew: A Play in Four Acts"", with Uri Assaf (Tel-Aviv, 1975). 1977.
- Liberators: Eyewitness Accounts of the Liberation of Concentration Camps 1981
- Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust 1988
- We Were Children Just Like You 1990
- There once was a world: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok 1998
- Dubner, Stephen J. (November 15, 1998). "Thousands of Ordinary Lives". New York Times. pp. section 7 page 10. Retrieved 2009-09-29.
- Klíma, Cynthia A. "Eliach, Yaffa". Novelguide.
- LaRuffa, Erin (October 7, 1999). "Eliach creates `Tower of Life' memorial". Observer. Retrieved November 14, 2011.
- "Author Bio: Yaffa Eliach". Routes to Roots Foundation.
- Awards Conferred by the College: Honorary Degrees. Keene State College
- "Amazon author listing". amazon.com. Retrieved 2009-09-29.