"The Guardian Angel of the Stetl"
by Gad Nahshon
Dr. Yaffa Eliach, one of the most distinguished expert-educators of the history and ramifications of the Holocaust era, a prolific writer and storyteller, is also the great guardian angel of the stetl, the Jewish world that vanished, Jewish life and heritage in East Europe. She is so creative, so original and she radiates love for Jews love for Israel, love for Jewish history. You can feel it like I did when I visited her in her headquarters on the East Side of Manhattan. Dr. Eliach, a superb inspired lecturer and storyteller as well, radiates love for humanity, love for the Yiddish culture, "Yiddishkiet", love for the Hebrew culture which explains her ability to outreach Jews, Israelis, and gentiles alike. It also explains her influence on people who tend to assimilate, and thanks to Dr. Eliach, they have become "born again Jews," returning to their Jewish roots. They just read Dr. Eliach's books or listened to her lectures. She is a popular guest in many places: universities, Jewish centers as well as churches. She has an unusual media exposure because she is able to educate gentiles about the beauty and greatness of Judaism and of the world that was destroyed by the Nazis and their many collaborators. But Dr. Yaffa Eliach had one more private touching experience: gentiles who would like to convert to Judaism. I met some of those who discovered, thanks to Dr. Eliach, the beauty of Judaism at her home researching Torah and Talmud. There was a case of a gentile who blamed Dr. Eliach for the fact that his daughter converted but later he changed his mind and expressed pride in the fact that his grandchildren are Kosher Jews.
I would like to note, hereby, that Dr. Eliach, for many years a professor in Brooklyn College, NYC, always believed in the integrative approach in education or philosophy. For example, Yiddish and Hebrew cultures are the two faces of the same coin. One of our great writers used to say that the two cultures are the two nostrils of one Jewish nose. As to the Holocaust era: First, Dr. Eliach was perhaps the first original, authentic, scholar-educator of the Holocaust consciousness in this country. She was an original pioneer. She established, in 1976 in Brooklyn, the first Holocaust Museum. President Ford came to the opening ceremony of this museum. But I must remark that she also was a pioneer in the issue of Holocaust education, per se. How do you teach, how do you present the issues of this era? What are your goals? After all, we cannot bring back the six million martyrs. How do you explain the legacy of the "other planet?" Dr. Eliach, for example, used Afro-American veterans of World War II as live witnesses. They were sent to teach about the Holocaust to many schools in Brooklyn. Dr. Eliach believes, as I noted in an integrative approach to the Holocaust era: You must relate to the pre-Holocaust era before 1939, in East Europe, as well as to the post-Holocaust era. You cannot isolate the Holocaust from the past, the present, and the future! And we must keep in mind that Dr. Eliach is not just a scholar-educator, but she is a Holocaust survivor. She was a child during the Holocaust. She was a victim of this terrible event. She survived by a miracle. She saw the murder of her family and her mother. It was a traumatic experience for a child only four years old.
She was rescued by a gentile Polish neighbor. She was saved because she found herself under the dead body of her mother. She saw it all. She remembers the shooting of her brother, a little baby, and of her mother: "Never forget!", for Dr. Eliach, is not just the popular slogan of Holocaust survivors, Israel, and the Jewish people. Furthermore, the murderers were not the Nazis but the Poles in 1946. Her mother even recognized them. It is well-known today that the Poles murdered many Jews who survived the Holocaust and tried to reclaim their houses, returning to the homes. And it happened not just in the more notorious case of the town of Kiltza in which 96 Jews were murdered in 1946. But Dr. Eliach never ever lost her sense of humanity. But, as I noted, she contributed to the rising consciousness of the Holocaust in this country. And she became a national dynamo in this field of education. We must accredit Dr. Eliach because, today, we live in an era in which the Holocaust has been commercialized or turned out to be just an industry. We face the terrible phenomenon of the ever growing industry of trivialization of the Holocaust. We have to face the new tendency to outreach the Holocaust as if it is a new secular religion, a new shrine.
The irony of history is sticking out. During the Holocaust era, the American Jewish establishment could not or did not develop an impressive record of rescue and outcry for the Jews in Europe. American Jewry was silent waiting for "Mr. War" to win. Of course, there were exceptions such as the "Bergson Group." Hillel Kook, Ben Hecht, and Vaad Haatsala (Agudot Israel), there were others who did something for rescue. But today as I noted, the Holocaust turned out to be a religion. I must say that Dr. Eliach is aware of these many negative tendencies. She is aware because she has developed the right approach to this issue. Today she is promoting a new idea which is originated in her ability to counter negative tendencies. The name of this idea is: The Shtetl Foundation Restoring a Vanished Past." This new brilliant idea is also built on Dr. Eliach's integrative approach to the Holocaust Era. This is a linkage between the Holocaust consciousness and the State of Israel or the City of Rishon Le-Zion, located twenty minutes from Tel Aviv, a city with a beach, a city on the sands, an old Zionist city with a very young population. Dr. Eliach was lucky to find, in Rishon, a person who was born in Romania, a person who understands Dr. Eliach's philosophy, and the approach to the Holocaust as an education. He espoused Dr. Eliach's idea, vision, brainchild, immediately. He dedicated his energy to accomplishing the new mission for his city: Mayor Meir Nitzan. In short: the goal of "The Shtetl Foundation" which Eliach is the "founding mother" and president is to raise 100 million dollars (address: 300 East 54th Street, NY, NY 10022; Tel: 212-319-2927; Fax: 212-751-7932) in order to finance the restoration (replica) of the stetl (today in Lithuania and until 1939 in Poland) her beloved hometown: Eishyshok.
If you want to understand the world of Dr. Eliach I should note that you must read the landmarks of her journey into the past, an integrative journey in which her private life and the public life are mixed: Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (the first original Hasidic Tales in a Century, the book was translated to 18 languages). Many celebrities praised this unique book: Saul Bellow, Jerry Kosinski, Chaim Potok, Elie Wiesel, to mention a few. Many people all over the world were inspired by these tales. Some even decided to convert to Judaism! The second book is There Once Was A World: A 900 Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok. It is based, since 1987, on Dr. Eliach's journey into her personal roots, back to Lithuania. Dr. Eliach documented the history of this small town. She managed to find around 15,000 photos. There are two major projects to see. They are a must if you want to know her world: one is the Tower of Life at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Dr. Eliach financed it around ten years ago. She is always investing her resources in order to accomplish her projects or visions. Millions of people saw this "Tower." Dr. Eliach is a forerunner and trailblazer of the formation, in 1981, of the Federal Commission on the Holocaust. She influenced, together with Elie Wiesel, ex-President Jimmy Carter, since 1979. She shaped the idea of this federal museum as an international landmark. One can also see and buy the video: There Once Was a Town - A Remarkable Journey of Hope and Survival (WETA and Noga Production, 2000). The video is partly based on Eliach's stetl. It featured a delegation of survivors returning to Eishyshok, a nostalgic journey into the past. Eliach provided the photos from her unique archive (Director: Jeffrey Bieber; Narration: Ed Asner).
Today, Dr. Eliach dedicates her public life to life! Her foundation, I mean: Life. The project of re-building the stetl in Rishon, in Israel means: Life! In her headquarters, Dr. Eliach explained her integrative approach: "I decided to show Jewish life. I decided to show to the world that we had a normal life. I do not like the approach that reduced everything to the Holocaust, to death. We need to show life, normalcy. We have to teach the Jews about life before 1939. That's the reason I decided to found, in 1999, the new "Shtetl Foundation," my new project," Eliach told me. Why in Israel? Why in Rishon Le-Zion? "First I thought to build the shtetl in Pennsylvania. Then I received many suggestions. I chose Rishon. We must come back to our homeland, Israel. We lived among the gentiles, as strangers. Also, my shtetl was a Zionist one. I love the Yiddish culture but we had Hebrew culture as well in Eishyshok. And the Rabbis there use Hebrew. The reconstruction of the shtetl in Rishon will show the normalcy of Jewish life in East Europe. I want to show that we, as children, played and enjoyed life, like children! The Jewish people were a normal nation. I have links to Israel. My project will integrate Jews to Israel, Israelis to the shtetl. After the Holocaust I went to Israel. Then we defined the Holocaust as the "slaughter" (Hebrew: Hashkhita).
I still remember my father telling me: "You saw everything. Do not forget the slaughter but the life is important. Life is the center of Judaism." How did you start to develop the idea of the shtetl in Rishon le-Zion? "I saw my shtetl in 1979 from the air. Suddenly, I recalled my Hebrew school. Then I decided to come back in order to find documents or photos. Of course, it was not the same shtetl that I remembered. But I was lucky to find one old woman. She was the neighbor that found me after the murder of my family. She saved my life and she spoke Yiddish! Can you imagine what kind of reunion it was: emotions, tears. What an experience for me. My visit there and my research gave birth to the idea of Tower of Life in Washington, D.C. Suddenly, gentiles found out that we, the Jews, are normal people not just historical dust or professional victims, the world's underdogs or scapegoats, not just persecuted people. Now you understand why I am against those who teach the Holocaust but do not teach about the world before the Holocaust." What is your opinion about the Holocaust consciousness in Israel? "I think that Israelis began to understand the Holocaust only after the trauma of October 1973, the Yom Kippur War. In the past, the Holocaust was a marginal issue. When I came to Israel in April of 1946 as a child, I did not speak about the Holocaust. I made an effort to be a "sabra." I love to read Yiddish. But then, in Israel, I did not tell people that I read Yiddish. The state was a sabra state. People were critical about Diaspora Jews. Hebrew was the national-Zionist language. They also ask: Why didn't you fight? Why did you let the Nazis commit this slaughter just like that? But today, it is different. There is more awareness. Young Israelis go to visit Auschwitz in what's called The March for Life. It is very important that they learn about the truth, but I would like them to learn about what Jewish life was like before the Holocaust. I figured out that in the teaching of the Holocaust, the teachers do not teach the Holocaust from a Jewish or Zionist vantage point: How we kept living as human beings all these years. I try to change the wrong approach in my courses. I already have taught 3800 teachers and school principles at Yeshiva University. I am against those who ignore the pre-Holocaust era and the post-Holocaust era. We must tell the whole truth so that the Holocaust will not repeat itself. So, I am against the Holocaust industry as well for its trivialization."
Did people ask you why six million died? "Yes! Jews and gentiles are looking for answers. I try my best. As to the issue of American-Jewish leadership, there is now a sense of sensitivity. They do not like to discuss this issue of rescue. My approach is positive: to re-enforce Jewish identity. By the way, I wrote to President Bush after 9/11. It was the first genocide in America. The syndrome of 9/11 was almost the same as the Holocaust syndrome." What was the response to the shtetl in Rishon le-Zion? "It will be a replica but not kitsch. It will be a special experience of life with live activities, culture, entertainment, theater, music, food, Yiddish culture, Hebrew culture, and even some Sephardic elements. It will not be Hollywood! It will not be Walt Disney... It will be a revival of education of Jewish life in the shtetl. Livor Levnat, Education Minister, supports this idea as well as Yad Vashem, and of course, Meir Nitzan, the mayor. Shmuel Raven is the architect of this project and Uri Assaf is the executive director of the Foundation. Let your readers support this unique monumental project in Israel." People who know Dr. Eliach, the wife of the famous rabbi-educator, David Eliach, are sure that she will accomplish her mission in Rishon. She has the right dynamo, the right dedication and the right stamina... "The way we commemorate the Holocaust is the wrong one. We must put life in its center and not death! We were used to focusing on our suffering rather than on our achievements. We reach the verge of the absurdity. Often gentiles who come to my lectures tell me: "We only heard stories about the massacre of Jews, stories of death," remarked Dr. Eliach, a few days before she went to Israel, her second homeland since Israel is in her heart.
Jewish life is packed with symbolism. We still face those who love to murder Jews. After I met Dr. Eliach I had to meet Miriam Fierberg the mayor of Netanya, a city which recently suffered from 14 terror attacks in which 50 Israelis were killed. We still must defend ourselves against new pogroms, against a new genocide, against a Muslim-Arabic-Palestinian "final solution." We still live in Israel under the shadow of a modern kind of pogrom. We still must defend: Life! And like in Dr. Eliach's vision, the ordinary people who go on and live their lives, they are the true heroes of our era! We can not ignore the symbolism. It certainly sticks out. Professor Yaffa Eliach is a pioneering scholar in Holocaust studies. She opened the first Center for Holocaust Studies Documentation & Research in the, USA and introduced Holocaust Studies on the American campus. She is the creator of the exhibit the Tower of Life at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A soaring display made up of 1500 photographs depicting the people of a typical East European shtetl, the Tower of Life has been seen by over 20 million visitors and is considered by many the most moving exhibit at the Museum. Professor Eliach's book, There Once Was A World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok, recounts the history of the shtetl portrayed in the Tower, and was a Nonfiction Finalist for the National Book Award. Described by Cynthia Ozick as "monumental, magisterial...transcendent," by Elie Wiesel as "rich with unforgettable images and memories," the book is available in both hardcover and paperback editions.
Even more monumental in scope than either the book or the Tower, Professor Eliach's newest project also focuses on a thousand years of shtetl life, in the form of a full-size replica of a shtetl, which will be built in Rishon Le-Zion, Israel. The Shtetl will be a recreation of a vanished past, a major cultural center of universal Judaism, Ashkenazic and Sephardic life and history, the contribution of Jewish immigrants to the countries of immigration, as well as the relationship with other groups. It is an enterprise unmatched in magnitude by any other venture in the field of ethnic studies, for Prof. Yaffa Eliach is crossing the bridge from the vanished past to the revival of Jewish life and the positive relationship between Jews and non-Jews. The Shtetl Foundation was established in the closing days of 1999, and Prof. Yaffa Eliach is its President and Founder. The groundbreaking ceremony has been scheduled for June 1, 2003, and construction of "Phase I" of the Open-Air Shtetl Museum will start soon thereafter. Other books by Yaffa Eliach include Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, a recipient of the Christopher Award and has become an enduring classic translated into many languages, We Were Children Just Like You, The Liberators: Eyewitness Accounts of the Liberation of Concentration Camps (co-editor), The Last Jew (co-author), The Fisherman's Wife (Hebrew), and currently a new book is being published in Japan and USA entitled Shtetl Children - Angels in Heaven and Children on Earth. Yaffa Eliach is a Professor of History and Literature, with areas of specialty in Eastern European history, Russian intellectual history, Holocaust studies, and Hasidism. In her graduate and undergraduate courses, seminars and independent studies, Yaffa Eliach shares with the students her original ideas and materials. As founder of the first Center for Holocaust Studies in the United States, she introduced new concepts in Holocaust documentation - written, oral and visual. As an East European historian, she also introduced new concepts about the origins of Hasidism. Her scholarship has made her a valued contributor to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Women's Studies Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Hasidism, as well as numerous scholarly, literary and popular publications in the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe, Australia, and Japan. A member of President Carter's Holocaust Commission, Professor Eliach is an internationally renowned figure who has been the recipient of many awards and honors. She received the Eternal Flame Award in 1999, which was presented at the Annual International Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches. The award is given to an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to the field of Holocaust Education, and she was chosen "Woman of the Year" by CBS-TV in 1995. She lectures frequently to academic and lay audiences and makes frequent appearances on television and radio both in the United States and abroad.
As to the shtetl in Rishon Le-Zion, Dr. Eliach once said: "I have an obligation to rebuild the vanished past. Maybe that is why I survived. What are we going to experience in the Rishon Le-Zion shtetl? The Foundation explains: "As a scholar of East European intellectual history, Yaffa Eliach knows that the portrait of small town Eastern European Jewry is still not complete. To really understand that world in its entirety would involve walking its streets, visiting its houses, and strolling its market squares - which is, of course, an impossibility, since that world was laid waste by the Nazis and their local collaborators. And this is why she decided to replicate the shtetl whose history she has documented in her book, There Once Was A World - The Shtetl of Eishyshok." Dr. Eliach promises a "spiritual and social center of the shtetl, at one of two synagogues to be located there, one modeled after an Eishyshok synagogue, another after the magnificent wooden synagogue of nearby Olkenik, which was described by Napoleon as one of the most beautiful buildings he had ever seen. The visitors can pray, celebrate births, hold bar and bat mitzvoth, or even have weddings, perhaps choosing to follow some of the shtetl wedding customs described in There Once Was a World. "They may also wish to pay a visit to the house of the shtetl Rabbi, to hear words of wisdom typical of those that inspired generations of guests, or they may go to Yiddish School or to the cheder. "Nothing like the rebuilt Shtetl exists to document the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe. "Traditionally the Shulhoyf always had a Yeshiva, and ours will be modeled after the renowned Yeshiva of the Haffetz Hayyim in Radun where people can study. Students will also be able to study at the Hebrew school, where a variety of unique educational programs and activities will he presented, young children can attend the beautiful kindergarten."
From the Shulhoyf, visitors might wish to go to the public bath with its Mikvah, and on to the House of Eternity, with tombstones dating back to 1097. where memorial services will take place. Or they may choose to wander the narrow lanes of small medieval houses, or the more modem streets lined with large private homes whose interiors will give insight into the family life of the shtetl. Continuing their trip by foot or by carriage, they can pay a visit to The Market Square, the heart of the commercial life of the Shtetl. There they will find a drug store, a photography studio, a fire house, a medical center stocked with both folk and conventional medicines, a shop selling books and religious articles, kiosk, a bakery restaurants, coffee shops, taverns, general stores, barber shop, haberdashery tailor, seamstress, shoemaker - in short, everything needed for daily life. As in Colonial Williamsburg, visitors will be able to watch and participate in the making of various objects representative of those created during the many centuries of the shtetl's existence, and will get to witness a typical Market Day as well. If this busy "city life" doesn't appeal, then they may opt to visit the nearby country side, where straw roofed farm houses amidst fields grazed by flocks of sheep, cows and chickens will show them the life of a typical Jewish farmer of days gone by.
"To accomplish all this we will need donations large and small from as many people as possible." Please join us in our effort to help present and future generations understand the glory of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic past, and the ways in which the cultural, religious, ethical and legal institutions of that past constitute a remarkable living legacy that informs our way of life today. "The hearts of the rebuilt shtetl complex will be a castle modeled after the ancient fortified Castle of Trakai, which was typical of four medieval castles of the area. This magnificent stonebrick structure, to be built on an island within a lake, will house the shtetl's main historical center, comprising an archive and library where scholars can pursue their research, a museum of Jewish life that will feature both Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions and customs, and an arts center where people will be able to participate in lectures, and see a variety of attractions including plays, Klezmer concerts, and films. "The museum's permanent and temporary exhibits will represent all aspects of East European life and its contributions to the world at large. Beginning with events and personalities dating as far back as the tenth century, when Jews began their mass migrations eastward, the exhibits will document the great Rabbis, scholars, judges, cantors, writers and other Jewish leaders whose influence on shtetl life was so profound, as well as the everyday laborers and craftsmen who kept it going; will show the surprisingly prominent role played by women in the shtetl; and will trace the many historical currents, including Hasidism, Haskalah (the Enlightenment), and Zionism, which buffeted the shtetl over the centuries. "These exhibits will also illuminate the ways in which the legacy of the shtetl continues to play out in the many countries to which the Jews of Eastern Europe emigrated, including, of course, the USA and the Land of Israel, whose very foundations rested on their labors. "Looking down from the castle, visitors will be able to see all the buildings that make up the shtetl complex across the water, cross the bridge and choose their routes accordingly. Perhaps they will.
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