Historian Yaffa Eliach’s archives donated to Yad Vashem

The papers were meticulously organized and arrived from New York in 500 boxes weighing around a ton in total.

STUDENTS FROM Germany visit the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
STUDENTS FROM Germany visit the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The bulk of the archives of renowned Jewish historian Prof. Yaffa Eliach, who is best known for her monumental work in Holocaust research, has been donated by her family to Yad Vashem.
At a ceremony on Monday to show appreciation for this gift, which will enhance the already stellar Yad Vashem archives, Dr. Haim Gertner, the collection’s director, said the papers were meticulously organized and arrived from New York in 500 boxes weighing about a ton.
Prominent among the pioneers of Holocaust research, Eliach realized more than sixty years ago how essential it was to document Jewish life as it was before the Holocaust in order to enable future generations to understand that those who died during the Holocaust were not just victims.
Most led normal lives before the Nazi oppressors began to take over Europe, and it was important to her that the memory of those lifestyles should be preserved.
In order to implement her ideas in as thorough a manner as possible, she established the Center for Holocaust Studies in Brooklyn. She focused on the tiny Lithuanian shtetl of Eishyshock on the Polish border where she was born and to which she returned in 1944 with her mother and infant brother, after having lived for a couple of years in a mud cellar and a pig sty. Before the war, there had been just over 3,000 Jews in Eishyshock, where Jews had lived for 900 years. Only 33 survived.
Barely an adolescent, Yaffa arrived with her uncle in British Mandate Palestine in 1946. One of her teachers at school was a sixth-generation Jerusalemite named David Eliach. They married while she was still in her teens, went to America and settled in New York, and remained married for 63 years before her death last November at age of 79.
Yaffa’s grandmother Alte Katz, who had been killed in a 1941 massacre in the shtetl, had been a photographer, and after the war, many of her photos of the Jews of Eishyshock came into Yaffa’s possession as she began searching on three continents for post cards, photos, letters, memoirs and anything else she could find in her bid to somehow bring the story of Eishyshock back to life and save it from oblivion.
The end result, said Judith Cohen, chief acquisitions curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was the Tower of Faces at the museum, which, she said, has made the greatest impression on millions of visitors.
The museum team, when thinking about how to convey the vitality of prewar Jewish life without over sentimentality or making it overly academic, went to see what Eliach had put together and found 6,000 photographs that she had collected. Of these, they chose 1,500 for the tower which goes through three floors. Gertner said that to date Yad Vashem had collected 4.7 million names of people who died during the Holocaust, but only 5% had photographs to go with the names. He said that he was amazed at the number of photographs that Eliach had managed to pair with names.
Rabbanit Esther Farbstein who is the head of Holocaust studies at the Michlala Jerusalem College, said that in her own research she been inspired by Eliach, particularly by her extraordinary and comprehensive books Once There Was a World and Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust. Farbstein was also impressed with studies conducted by Eliach into the manner in which Jewish traditions were observed in the concentration camps and how people were able to keep their faith despite the atrocities. Eliach believed that this helped them to maintain their humanity and may also have helped to save their lives, she said.
Eliach had an impact on the lives of almost everyone with whom she came into contact, which would explain why the auditorium at Yad Vashem was full to overflowing.
The overwhelming majority of those present had been her pupils at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Brooklyn College or City University of New York.
The occasion was not only a tribute to her memory but a reunion of people whose world view she had helped to shape.