Eliach to speak on Holocaust memories
By ERIN PIROUTEK
As a young girl, Yaffa Eliach escaped from horror, destruction and death of the Holocaust carrying several family photographs in her shoes.
Separated from her family — many of whom were killed — Eliach was smuggled out of her native Poland [now part of Lithuania] under an assumed name. Her brother did not want the young girl to forget the family, so he carefully hid the photographs under the cardboard liners in her shoes.
The photographs, including one showing a smiling 4-year-old Eliach, clad in a gingham dress among a flock of chickens and another depicting Eliach held tightly in her father's arms, became her main link to her past.
"Sometimes, when I was very lonely, and I wanted to see my mother or father, I would hide and look at the pictures," said Eliach.
Her town, Eishyshok, was destroyed by the Holocaust. Only 29 of the 3,500 members of the town's Jewish population survived.
Eliach became dedicated to preserving the memory of Eishyshok — the bustling, vibrant Eishyshok that existed before the Holocaust.
"I wanted to concentrate on life and not on death. We were a creative, dynamic people," said Eliach in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The photos that had been so carefully hidden in Eliach's shoes became the inspiration for a collection that now numbers 6,000 photos. Approximately 1,500 of these photos are displayed in the three-story Tower of Life at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
The photos depict residents of Eishyshok at home, weddings, bar mitzvahs, the marketplace — celebrating the joy of daily existence.
"My first reaction, similar to that of many others, was to marvel at how rich and varied of a life was destroyed," said Marianne Hirsch, describing her visit to the Tower of Life in the book "Family Frames."
The Tower of Life provides a sharp contrast to other areas of the Holocaust Museum that show concentration camps and mass graves. Those in the concentration camps had already been stripped of their humanity and individuality — the Tower of Life showcases the humanity and individuality that was lost.
Eliach spent 17 years gathering this collection of photos, as well as interviewing survivors, reading diaries and searching for official documents. Her search covered six continents and required intense efforts to procure the photos and information.
Her efforts culminated in not only the Tower of Life but also the book "There Once was a World: A 900 Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok," a detailed history of Jewish life in Eishyshok from the creation of the town through its destruction during the Holocaust. Eliach's ancestors were among the original founders of the town in the 11th century.
"I am telling Adolph Hitler and all of his collaborators, here is a Jewish mother and grandmother who continues Jewish life, not only biologically, but intellectually as well. And I am in the midst of the heart of democracy," Eliach told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"It's important for people to see that out of [the Holocaust] came something that's very positive, creative, and energetic," said Betty Signer, coordinator of the Notre Dame Holocaust project, a sponsor of Eliach's visit.
"We want people to think about what has happened and how they as an individual can prevent things like this from happening again," said Signer, describing the importance of the Notre Dame Holocaust project.
Eliach will describe her experiences in the lecture "Restoring a Vanished Past: There Once was a World" tonight at 8 p.m. in the Notre Dame Center for Continuing Education.
Eliach will also lead a gender studies discussion "Women of Valor, Women of Pain" at noon Friday in 119 O'Shaughnassy.
All News Stories for Wednesday, October 6, 1999