Yaffa Eliach’s Pre-Holocaust Portraits

On June 23. 1941. German Einsatzgruppen mobile killing squads] stormed into Ejszyszki (pronounced E-shish-key], a Jewish shtetl south of Vilna in Poland. 3500 Jews lived in Ejszyszki, a village that had harbored Jewish life since 1073. By the time the war was over, just 29 of these Jews were left alive. One of them was Yaffa Sonenson Eliach. .She was only four when the Germans came; she survived because a Polish friend of her parents hid the family in a cave under a pigsty.

Today Eliach—who teaches Holocaust history and literature at Brooklyn College—has made a vocation of resurrecting the world that perished when the Nazis arrived. As a member of President Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust (predecessor of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Commission), Eliach had the opportunity to tour Warsaw, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Plazow, and Cracow— places indelibly stained with the blood of millions of Eastern European Jews.

“I was struck by the fact that a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland were reduced to mere images of victimization and death.” she says. “There was no record of the yeshiva, the schools, scholars, rabbis, merchants, artisans, enterprising women, Zionist and socialist organizations, community institutions or family life. For me it was like a double death—first being killed physically, and then the memory being killed, too.”

That was when she vowed to commemorate the vibrant, diverse nature of Jewish experience that existed before the war, And as a woman whose mother and maternal grandmother had been professional photographers, she knew exactly how to do it: by amassing 8000 photographs of her former townspeople, 1500 of which will comprise a permanent exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The story starts with Eliach’s maternal grandfather, Yitzhak Uri Katz, who came to America in the 1890’s and attended City College in New York, where he studied to become a pharmacist. However, he felt that the New World wouldn’t allow him to observe his faith (he would have needed to keep the pharmacy open on Saturdays), so he returned to Ejszyszki. Before he did, he learned photography, hoping it would be a lucrative sideline, and he bought the equipment necessary to set up a portrait studio. When he returned to Ejszyszki and married, his wife, Alte, became his assistant and, later, an accomplished photographer in her own right.

After her husband’s death in 1931, Alte Katz, a radical free-thinker who campaigned for women’s equality, ran the studio by herself, an unusual and prestigious career for a women in those days. “She had a beautiful studio with a glass roof,” recalls Eliach. And she had a special feeling for photographing children. Years later, when Eliach was sorting through the thousands of images that would become her book, she could easily pick out those that were taken by her grandmother because, she says, “I knew the poses she liked.” It was through Alte Katz that Eliach’s mother, Tzipporah Katz Sonenson, also entered the profession, studying with one of the finest portrait photographers of the day, Glauberman of Lida (then Poland, now Lithuania).

The search for these visual artifacts became a quest that lasted twelve years and sent Eliach to six continents, following all kinds of leads, talking to survivors, their friends, and investigating public records. She searched through libraries, archives, and the records of landsmanschaften [associations of Old World compatriots established in the New World], sifting through letters, diaries, marriage certificates, wedding invitations, birth registrations, passports, and, of course, thousands and thousands of photographs.

The vintage photos she uncovered—many taken by her maternal grandmother, one of Ejszyszki’s two studio photographers—depict families, children, groups of young people, workers, and wedding scenes. “These images show people as they wished to be remembered,” says Eliach. And indeed the woman in a fur coat and print scarf standing amid the snow-covered trees, and the little girl with the big bow flanked by her grandparents, have a touching formality made all the more poignant when one remembers the hideous way in which they were killed. The young woman is Eliach’s mother, shot fifteen times by Polish partisans who discovered her hidden in a storage space, infant son in her arms. Eliach was crouched behind her; she survived because her mother’s dead body collapsed on top of her, concealing her from the Poles. The elderly couple lived in Ejszyszki; the man was a builder and his wife, a zogerke (the woman who led prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue). All their children except one son emigrated to America. That son and his wife—parents of the little girl seen here—were neighbors of Eliach’s parents. “We shared the same backyard.” she remembers. The family was murdered by the Germans.

While Eliach strives to create an image of life, and not death, with her work, she nevertheless cannot forget that these were lives that ended brutally and before their time. In the trendy Soho offices of Ralph Appelbaura (the firm hired to design the tower at the D.C. Holocaust Memorial Museum), Eliach walks around and around a large-scale model of the tower, which will be the exhibit’s permanent home. “I want something to introduce the exhibit’s installation,” she says quietly, but with authority. “An artifact—something to symbolize the destruction.” The designers look puzzled so she explains: “When the Germans came, they rounded up the Jews into the town’s marketplace. People came carrying their most precious possessions—a pair of brass candlesticks, a mandolin. Days later. I saw the same marketplace, now empty of people, but littered with all these objects. There was an autograph book, a shawl . . .” her voice trails off. “I want to convey that here.” She turns to one of the designers and asks: “What about a yellow silk blouse on the floor of the exhibit? A dress? A shawl? A paper flower?” The designers remain silent.

Looking at their faces, puzzled and skeptical, she strides across the room to the boxes crammed with exhibit photographs. Everyone gathers around as she pores over a randomly selected photograph. Like many of the photos, a corner is bent and there are stains—grease? food? tears? These are not museum-quality prints nestled safely in archival boxes: instead, the pictures—none of which has been cropped for the exhibit—wear the marks of age, of long journeys and repeated handling. “These are all we have left to tell the story,” says Eliach, trying to convey to the designers that something different is happening here, that the photos are the only remaining link to a lost world. “We must use them well.”

Yona Zeldis McDonough is a novelist and short story writer: She is currently at work on a children ‘s book about biblical heroines.

Yaffa Eliach Visiting Israel

Yaffa Eliach’s 1500 photographs will be permanently housed in a specially designed tower at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C, scheduled to open in 1993.

Called Tower of Faces—Tower of Life, the exhibit will be not only a vivid memorial to the nearly 4000 Jews of Ejszyszki and neighboring small towns who were murdered by German Einsatzgruppen and their local collaborators in a two-day period (September 25-26, 1941), but also to the more than 6000 small East European towns whose Jews were similarly killed.

The publication of Dr. Eliach’s companion volume, tentatively titled The Shtetl of Ejszyszki (Little, Brown), is due to coincide with the opening of the show.