Exhibit commorates daily shtetl life before the Holocaust
By ERIN LaRUFFA
Flying from Poland to Kiev as part of President Jimmy Carter's Holocaust Commission, Yaffa Eliach had an inspiration.
"I suddenly realized that somewhere beneath the clouds was the town my family had lived in for 900 years," Eliach said Wednesday night in a lecture sponsored by the Notre Dame Holocaust Project.
Eliach is originally from the Eastern European shtetl Eishyshok, near Vilna, Lithuania. Her family was one of the five founding families in the 11th Century. When the Nazis came, they murdered both her mother and baby brother. The Nazis also murdered approximately 3,500 other Jews — including 900 children — in Eishyshok. At age 4, Eliach managed to escape from her hometown under a false identity. A relative hid 10 photographs of Eliach and her family in her shoe.
In 1979, Eliach and other members of Carter's commission visited the Nazi concentration camps in Europe to determine a proper way to memorialize the Holocaust. Most of her colleagues wanted to include cattle cars and gas chambers in a holocaust museum.
"I did not feel comfortable with it," Eliach said of their plans to feature only the Nazis' destruction. "I kept hearing Jews going to the synagogue."
She decided she wanted to memorialize the daily lives of Jews in her shtetl, which had existed for nine centuries before the Nazis destroyed it in two days.
"I did not see [Jews] as skulls and bones," Eliach said.
She then searched for photographs and documents about life in the town before World War II. Her search covered 17 years and six continents.
Eliach's efforts led to the creation of the Tower of Life at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which contains approximately 1,500 photos of Jews in Eishyshok before the Germans came. Eliach said the tower, which is designed to give the sense of standing in the middle of the town, has helped museum visitors to realize the creativity of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
"It became the album of the family of mankind," said Eliach of the Tower.
Many of the pictures were taken before the people photographed emigrated from the shtetl. Eliach's paternal grandparents took many of the photos in their studio.
Eliach also spoke of the impact the people from Eishyshok have had throughout the world. People from the town immigrated to all parts of the globe. Barbara Walters' mother was one such immigrant.
In addition to creating the Tower of Life, Eliach also wrote the book "There Once Was a World: a 900-year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok."
She gained a great deal of valuable information from unofficial documents such as diaries and letters, instead of official government documents. The book also contains photos from the shtetl before the war.
Before composing the book, Eliach said she had to revisit Eishyshok.
"The pain was unbelievable," she said of her visit. The hardest part of the visit was the fact that all remnants of Jewish life in the town had been destroyed.
However, Eliach said she is not sure Eishyshok would have survived even without the war. She said shtetl life was changing and many people had already begun to emigrate elsewhere.
As a new project, Eliach is working to build a full-scale model in Israel of pre-war Eishyshok.
"I feel my generation ... is the last link with the Holocaust," she said, adding that it is their responsibility to document the tragedy in terms of "not death, not destruction, but life."
"We will survive," she said. "We will be creative."
Eliach is a professor at Brooklyn College. She is the founder of the first Center for Holocaust Documentation and Research in the United States. She was the subject of a PBS documentary, and has written many books.
Eliach also lectured at Notre Dame on Monday night about the importance of education in fostering tolerance. During her visit, she spoke to history and theology classes and met with graduate students.
"She really has been interacting with students," said Betty Singer, director of the Notre Dame Holocaust Project.
"It is indeed a big pleasure and privilege for me to be here," Eliach said.
All News Stories for Thursday, October 7, 1999