Stories from a Tower of Faces: The Guardian of Memory
It is hard to fathom what Yaffa Eliach witnessed as a little girl.
She was born in the mid-1930s and her childhood started with happy years surrounded by family and friends in a vibrant Jewish community. Just a few years later, conflict intruded, upending her life over and over again.
First, Yaffa’s town, Eisiskes, which is now in Lithuania, was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Less than two years later, Nazi Germany invaded. And just three months after that, almost 4,000 Jews from her town and the surrounding area were massacred. The few dozen survivors of this 270-year-old Jewish community included Yaffa, an older brother, a baby brother, and her parents Moshe and Zipporah Sonenson. Moshe had found hiding places for the family and himself escaped the roundups in Eisiskes.
But surviving the Holocaust and later upheaval was a day-to-day struggle:
The family lived in a ghetto. Then they hid in a carriage house with other Jews who worried the baby’s cries would give them away. He was smothered and died. Then they were hidden by a farmer in a cave under a pigsty, until the farmer worried he would be found out. They then stayed with another friend who later asked them to leave. Zipporah gave birth to another son. Moshe left the baby outside a church with a note that he had been born out of wedlock and asking for him to be baptised and cared for.
The family was then liberated as the Soviet Union drove Nazi Germany from the area. But Yaffa’s childhood did not get any easier:
Moshe was able to reclaim the baby who had been left at the church. They named him Chaim and celebrated his return. It was short-lived: Zipporah and Chaim were killed in a confrontation with anti-Soviet partisans. Moshe was subsequently arrested by Soviet authorities and sent for forced labor in the interior of the country. Fortunately, Yaffa found her uncle, Shlomo, Moshe’s brother. He had lived in Palestine, at the time administered by Britain, and had a British passport. Claiming Yaffa as his daughter, he left the Soviet Union with her and they made their way to Palestine, arriving in April 1946.
From then, Yaffa was able to rebuild her life. She attended school and fell in love with and married David Eliach. Her father was eventually released and came to Israel in the mid-1950s. She later became a professor of history and literature in the department of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College, and founded the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn.
At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, we remember her as the person who saved the memory of a town. She was haunted by images of Holocaust survivors who were starved, gaunt, on the verge of death. Her childhood memories were of Jews full of life. So over 15 years, she scoured all 50 states and the world for photographs from Eisiskes.
She knew they were out there. Her grandparents, Yitzhak and Alte Katz, had owned the town’s photography studio and Yitzhak had documented the community for decades. When young people had emigrated before the Holocaust, seeking a better life less marred by antisemitism, they took photos of their hometown and family and kept in touch, receiving even more by mail.
So even though there are no Jews in Eisiskes today, the Museum has a soaring memorial to that vibrant community. More than 1,000 photographs, from everyday life and special occasions, help visitors understand that the Holocaust happened not that long ago, to people who are not so different from us. They played sports, they celebrated holidays, they posed with their families. One photo of a marriage proposal even features Mickey Mouse.
The photos help us relate to the people of that small town, who were not unlike people in towns all across Soviet territory who were massacred beginning in June 1941, amounting to as many as two million victims. That is how the genocide of Europe’s Jews began — not with deportations or striped uniforms, but with shootings near where the victims lived.
Thanks to Yaffa Eliach, we can remember those victims in the fullness of their humanity.
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