Yaffa Eliach

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Yaffa Eliach
Yaffa Sonenson

(1935-05-31)May 31, 1935[a]
DiedNovember 8, 2016(2016-11-08) (aged 81)
EducationBrooklyn College, City University of New York

Yaffa Eliach (May 31, 1935[a] – November 8, 2016) was an American historian, author, and scholar of Judaic studies and the Holocaust. She is probably best known for creating the "Tower of Faces" 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 (Yiddish: איישישאָק‎/Eishyshok) near Vilna, now Eišiškės, Lithuania, a small town which before the war was part of Second Polish Republic and had a Jewish majority until the Holocaust, where she lived until she was four years old. Following the Soviet takeover in 1939, her father became involved with Soviet authorities.[2] 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 were sheltered by Polish land owner Kazimierz Korkuc and farmer Antoni Gawryłkiewicz.[3][4] Some of the details from her accounts of time under their protection were questioned by Gawryłkiewicz, in particular Elliach claimed that she was trapped with her family for 9 days underground hiding from Home Army, hearing their slogans "Poland free from Jews"; Antoni Gawryłkiewicz stated that such event never took place[5] In 1944, following the Soviet takeover of the town from Nazi Germany, the family returned to the town, and her father became involved again with Soviet authorities,[2][2][6] and, according to both Eliach and her brother, housed Soviet soldiers[2][6] During fight between Polish resistance and Soviet forces two members of Sonenson family and two Soviet soldiers were killed[6] Subsequently, Eliach said she hid with her mother and baby brother in a closet during a pogrom by Poles and the Polish Home Army; after being discovered in their hiding place, her mother stepped out of the closet holding the baby and asked to be shot prior to the baby. Her request was refused; the baby was shot with 9 bullets and her mother with 15 . while Eliach survived when her mother's body fell back into the closet on top of her and concealed her.[7][8][9] Many other Jews were killed in the attack on the returning refugees.[10] Eliach's claims about pogrom have been in turn rejected by some historians who believe that the deaths were coincidental during Soviet-Polish fight, and no other Jews besides Eliach's family members were reported as killed[6][11]

Post war[edit]

Eliach emigrated to Palestine in 1946, and later to the United States in 1954. In Israel she attended Kfar Batya. At that time her Hebrew last name was Ben Shemesh. Yaffa married the principal of the institution, David Eliach, and became a history teacher in the school (while still a teenager). In the school she met a student, Izhak Weinberg who was three years younger. According to Izhak, Yaffa was most positive, talented and gifted student.[12]

She received her B.A. in 1967 and her M.A. 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.[13]

Academic career[edit]

Beginning in 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.[13]

Eliach devoted herself to the preservation of memory of the Holocaust from a survivor's vantage point. She preserved her memories (via lecture) on video and audiocassettes, and her research has provided much material used in courses on the Holocaust in the United States.[13]

Eliach thought her generation "the last link with the Holocaust", and considered it her responsibility to document the tragedy in terms of life, not death,[14] bringing the Jews back to life.

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,[13] now principal emeritus of the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. She has a daughter, Smadar Rosensweig, Professor of Bible at Stern College for Women (NYC), and a son, Yotav Eliach, the principal of Rambam Mesivta High School. She has 14 grandchildren, including Itamar Rosensweig.[15] Yaffa Eliach died in New York on November 8, 2016.[16]


Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust[edit]

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."[17]

There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok[edit]

In memory of her native Eishyshok she wrote There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok (1998),. John Radzilowski in his review of the book states that although sections of the book on everyday Jewish contain useful and important ethnographic information for history of the Jewish people, when Eliach discusses general east European history, the history of Polish-Jewish relations, and Second World War, the work contains many errors.[6][18] Radzilowski criticizes whay he considers simplistic and partisan portrayal of ethnic groups in the book, in which Elliach presents all Jews as good, intelligent, handsome/beautiful, brave, generous, almost all Poles bad, and Lithuanians good until they come under the influence of Poles and become anti-Semites.[18] However what Radzilowski considers a more important flaw is the fact that Eliach often contradicts herself, presenting different version of events and not presenting any documents that would prove her claims. Sometimes she relies on sources, only to criticize them later for not backing her up. In his view, it is a flaw that she relies on Soviet interrogations as a source of historic information. In summary, he states that the fact that Elliach is writing on such difficult subject as the Holocaust, "raises troubling questions about her motives"[19]

Dispute over death of Eliach's family members[edit]

Eliach's eyewitness testimony was published and widely disseminated in a New York Times op-ed, in which she said she was a victim of pogrom by Poles and the Polish Home Army, her mother and baby brother shot multiple times as they stepped out of a closet they were hiding in, with Eliach surviving underneath her mother's body that had fallen back down on her in the closet. Eliach's claimed that prior to the attack, the Polish commander outside the houses concluded his order with what she claims was a popular Home Army slogan "Poland without Jews".[20] According to historian John Radzilowski, Eliach was never able to produce any documents supporting her claim such slogans were used[21]

Israeli historian Israel Gutman criticized Eliach stating "I don't have sympathy for this author; she's not an authority on Holocaust, and her books haven't been translated to Hebrew. One shouldn't close eyes to the fact that Home Army in Vilnius region fought with Soviet partisans for liberation of Poland. That's why Jews that belonged to the other side were killed by Home Army as enemies of Poland, and not as Jews".[22]

Polish-Jewish journalist Adam Michnik, founder of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, said she insulted Poland and that while individual anti-Semitic excesses could have happened(...)it is shocking and out of place for a professional historian to blame everyone for a crime committed by one individual and that the Eliach's claim was "senseless fanaticism".[23] A Polish American Public Relations Committee member said that "Holocaust survivors tend to be revisionist, wanting to satisfy their egos, defame others and financially profit". Eliach responded by saying that "several fringe Polish-American groups, following in the footsteps of Holocaust revisionists, set out to deny the truth about the murder of Zipporah and Hayyim Sonenson, my mother and baby brother".[24]

Historian Jaroslaw Wolkonowski did not deny the incident, but said Eliach omitted to mention that her family was harboring a Soviet spy and that her father a supporter of the Soviet Union, who had occupied the area from Poland and later Nazi Germany.[23] Polish Historian Tadeusz Piotrowski questioned the Home Army's motivations to commit a pogrom Eishyshok, which was a Soviet garrison town, and points out that freeing 50 captured Polish fighters who were held prisoner in the town might have been the target of the raid. Piotrowski also pointed out a NKVD agent, belonging to a SMERSH unit, was in the house.[25] Lithuanian historian and political scientist Liekis Sarunas has also said that the available historic documents do not support Eliach's version of the event as being an attack on the Jews, while showing that her family and friends "were clearly on the side of the NKVD and even directly served them" and thus became part of the "Soviet repressive structure".[26] John Radzilowski said that Eliach believed that the Home Army with help of Catholic Church held a conference similar to Wanesee Conference in which a plan to mass murder all remaining Jews was discussed, and death of her family was part of a "Polish Final Solution".[11] Radzilowski also stated that Eliach was questioned on her claims and documents supporting them by members of US Holocaust Memorial Museum Memorial Counci, and responded by joking "they didn't have Xerox machines", later changing her version to stating that the documents were found by Soviet secret police, and later again changing her claim and stating that this document was found by her father and NKVD in raid against Home Army[6]

The Polish Ministry of Justice asked the U.S. Justice Department to allow lawyers to interview Eliach so that a case could be opened to investigate if any guilty party is still being alive. Eliach refused saying that the request was "couched in Orwellian language" about bringing the killers of her mother and brother to justice, when they were already tried and punished by the Soviets more than 50 years prior. Eliach questioned the lack of the Polish investigation into other murders of Jews by Poles in Poland, and into Holocaust denial in Poland.[23][24]

According to an documentary article in Gazeta Wyborcza written in 2000 in which Eliach was interviewed, Eliach herself claimed that Polish Home Army slogan was "Poland without Jews" and that it planned mass extermination of all Jewish people within Poland. The article also mentioned her stating that primary goal of Polish Home Army was killing Jews[27] Two historians interviewed in the article have rejected Eliah's claims and described the death of her family members as most likely a coincidence during shoot out between Polish resistance and Soviet and NKVD operatives.[28]

Other claims[edit]

In an interview in 2000, she also stated that she has in her possession photos of a woman allegedly engaged to pope John Paul II and that Polish press is begging her to release them.[29]

Honors and awards[edit]

  • 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;
  • Eternal Flame award, 1999;
  • Honorary doctorates: Yeshiva University, New York; Spertus College, Chicago;[13] Keene State College, 2003[30]


  1. ^ a b sources vary on birth year giving 1935, 1936, or 1937 [1]


  • 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[31]
  • Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust 1988[31]
  • We Were Children Just Like You 1990[31]
  • There once was a world: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok 1998[7]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Cite error: The named reference wapo20161110 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  2. ^ a b c d "Yaffa Eliach's Eishyshok: Two Views." Polin 15 (2002) page 464
  3. ^ [1] Opowieść o ojcu, który dotrzymał słowa, Dziennik Plocki 16.03.2017
  4. ^ Poland's Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947 page 91 Tadeusz Piotrowski
  5. ^ Gazeta Wyborcza 27.05.2000 Gazeta Swiateczna, page 7 Głowy na wietrze Anna Ferens, Marcin Fabjanski Nowy York
  6. ^ a b c d e f Yaffa Eliach's big book of Holocaust revisionism John Radzilowski Pages 273-280 , Journal of Genocide Research, Volume 1, 1999 - Issue 2
  7. ^ a b Dubner, Stephen J. (November 15, 1998). "Thousands of Ordinary Lives". New York Times. pp. section 7 page 10. Retrieved 2009-09-29.
  8. ^ "Shtetl – FRONTLINE". FRONTLINE. Retrieved 2017-08-15.
  9. ^ Life Beyond the Holocaust: Memories and Realities, Mira Ryczke Kimmelman, page xxiv
  10. ^ Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch, page 256
  11. ^ a b "Ejszyszki Revisited, 1939-45" published in Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry volume 15
  12. ^ "Kfar Batya Bar Ilan". Google Docs. Retrieved 2017-08-15.
  13. ^ a b c d e Klíma, Cynthia A. (2002). "Eliach, Yaffa". Novelguide.com. Archived from the original on December 1, 2008. Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  14. ^ LaRuffa, Erin (October 7, 1999). "Eliach creates 'Tower of Life' memorial" (PDF). The Observer. University of Notre Dame. p. 1. Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  15. ^ "Author Bio: Yaffa Eliach". Routes to Roots Foundation.
  16. ^ Berger, Joseph (2016-11-09). "Yaffa Eliach, Historian Who Captured Faces of the Holocaust, Dies at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-11-11.
  17. ^ Lifton, Robert (1982). Blurb, inside book flap, first edition of Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (Oxford University Press), as quoted in product "Description", Amazon.com. Retrieved 2016-11-11.
  18. ^ a b Yaffa Eliach's big book of Holocaust revisionism John Radzilowski Pages 273-280 , Journal of Genocide Research, Volume 1, 1999 - Issue 2 page 274
  19. ^ Yaffa Eliach's big book of Holocaust revisionism John Radzilowski Pages 273-280 , Journal of Genocide Research, Volume 1, 1999 - Issue 2 page 279
  20. ^ The Pogrom at Eishyshok, Op Ed, New York Times, Yaffa Eliach, 6 Aug 1996
  21. ^ Yaffa Eliach's big book of Holocaust revisionism John Radzilowski Pages 273-280 , Journal of Genocide Research, Volume 1, 1999 - Issue 2 page 278
  22. ^ Israel Gutman Znak "Uczmy sie byc Razem" June 2000 issue 541 page 66
  23. ^ a b c Polish paper: fanaticism in New York Times, UPI, 8 Aug 1996
  24. ^ a b The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida · Page 15, 10 Aug 1996
  25. ^ Poland's Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947 page 92-93 Tadeusz Piotrowski
  26. ^ "Yaffa Eliach's Eishyshok: Two Views." Polin volume 15 (2002)
  27. ^ Gazeta Wyborcza 27.05.2000 Gazeta Swiateczna, page 14 Głowy na wietrze Anna Ferens, Marcin Fabjanski Nowy York
  28. ^ Gazeta Wyborcza 27.05.2000 Gazeta Swiateczna, page 14 Głowy na wietrze Anna Ferens, Marcin Fabjanski Nowy York
  29. ^ Gazeta Wyborcza 27.05.2000 Gazeta Swiateczna, page 2 Głowy na wietrze Anna Ferens, Marcin Fabjanski Nowy York
  30. ^ "Awards Conferred by the College: Honorary Degrees" (PDF). Keene State College. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 1, 2013. Retrieved 2016-11-11.
  31. ^ a b c "Amazon author listing". amazon.com. Retrieved 2009-09-29.