Pictorial Tower of Faces Keeps Holocaust Victims Alive : Museum: Yaffa Eliach was 4 years old when the Nazis massacred 3,500 Jews in her town. In memory of them, she has created a montage of the community and its people.


In the middle of a dirt road lined by leafy trees, a father holds a little barelegged girl in a gingham dress. She has an arm around his neck, a hand in his hand. Her face is serene.

It was the end of a perfect summer day. She went swimming in the lake in her red bathing suit. Later, she fed the chickens. The fields, she remembers, were yellow with buttercups, and the musty smell of mushrooms lingered in the air from the rain the day before.

The father’s face is unsmiling, but not especially grim. He looks proud of his 4-year-old daughter. Does he have any premonition of how their world is about to be utterly destroyed?


“From the fields of buttercups suddenly to darkness,” Yaffa Sonenson Eliach, 57, said quietly as she looked at the black-and-white photograph of her father holding her, among other childhood pictures scattered on her coffee table.

The photo was taken 53 years ago--on June 21, 1941--by her grandmother, a local photographer. It was taken just before the family left their summer house in what was then Poland, and now Lithuania, to return to their nearby home in the Polish shtetl of Ejszyszki (Ay-shish’-key).

That day her family learned of the impending arrival of German tanks. For this Jewish child, it was the last summer day for the rest of the war.

Three months later, in September, the Nazis massacred all but 500 of the town and surrounding area’s 4,000 Jews, including her grandmother. Eliach, her mother, father and two brothers survived--although two of them, as well as a newborn baby brother, were to be killed during the next several years of atrocities.

Of the 500 who escaped the massacre, only 29 survived the war.

Today, Eliach is a grandmother whose dignity and scholarship inspire deep respect and whose sweetness makes her a delightful companion for a cup of tea. But her early childhood is always with her.

Remembering is painful. But Eliach, a Brooklyn College professor who teaches and writes about the Holocaust, goes on. Her life’s work is pressing; it is to give back to the victims of the Holocaust their humanity and, she says, to show “the enormity of the life that was lost.”

And for Eliach, that has often meant making her private loss public.

The picture on her coffee table is part of Eliach’s collection of more than 1,500 photographs of Ejszyszki and its inhabitants that is exhibited at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which opened last year. The Tower of Faces, as it is called, brings the shtetl vividly to life. There are pictures of bar mitzvahs, graduations and weddings, and snapshots of everyday life.


Eliach wanted the exhibit to re-create the feeling she had when she returned to Ejszyszki in 1987 and visited the grave site where women and children had been shot and buried. The faces and voices she had known as a child, she recalled, surrounded her and almost pulled her away with them.

Eliach is nearing completion of a 1,000-page history of the shtetl. Her family was among its original settlers in 1073 and played a prominent role in its history. Ejszyszki is the town’s Polish spelling; the Jews spelled it Eishyshok (A’-shi-shok).

The Sonensons were prosperous and educated. They were modern Jews with secular educations but religiously very observant. Their house faced onto the center of the marketplace, where the town’s well-to-do inhabitants lived. Eliach’s father owned a leather tannery and candle factory, as well as forest and farmland that produced honey, mushrooms and silver fox fur.

The shtetl had no running water but was far from an illiterate backwater, Eliach says. Scholarship was highly valued. Families had close contact with the United States through relatives. Ed Asner and Lauren Bacall’s families came from Ejszyszki.

The end came three months after the Germans arrived. On Sept. 21, 1941, the eve of the Jewish New Year, Jews were allowed to attend Rosh Hashana services. But Eliach’s father was suspicious. He felt it was a ploy to assemble the Jews, and suggested the family run away. His wife refused.

They dressed for services. Yaffa was helped into the powder-blue velvet dress with lace collar that she was to wear for the rest of the war. Her parents and baby brother, Hayyim, went to synagogue. At the last minute, Yaffa was sent to her nanny’s house and her 8-year-old brother, Yitzhak, was left with another Christian family.


Frightened and bewildered, Yaffa hid behind the curtains and watched Germans loot Jewish homes and pile the stolen goods onto wagons. On top of one cart, she saw her own dolls and one of her mother’s lamps.

Nazi killing squads had entered the town and were rounding up the Jews in the three synagogues. From there, they were taken to the horse market outside the town. The men were led to the old Jewish cemetery, where they were ordered to undress, stand at the edge of an open pit and then shot by Lithuanian guards. The women and children were shot near the Christian cemetery.

Eliach and her immediate family escaped death, as they repeatedly did during the war, she says, because of her father’s “sense of somehow always predicting the most difficult and most horrible situations.”

He escaped from the synagogue by jumping out a window. Then he persuaded a Polish friend to go to the horse market and bribe a Lithuanian guard into releasing Mrs. Sonenson and their baby boy.

Meanwhile, he sent a shepherd to bring Yaffa and her older brother to a riverbank where he was waiting. There, for the first time, the little girl saw people who had been killed. She remembers wondering why they were sleeping.

The family eventually was reunited in the Jewish ghetto in Radun.

“I remember the cold,” Eliach says. “I remember people being shot. I remember the red blood against the white snow. I remember the gallows very well, and the hanging bodies. I remember even learning to tell time. At noontime there, you had no shadows in the gallows.”


On May 10, 1942, the Germans surrounded the ghetto. They had been ordered to liquidate it. Yaffa’s father instructed his wife and children to run and hide in the carriage house.

There, in the loft, 16 other Jews, all adults, were already hiding. They wanted no children who could easily betray them. Sonenson pleaded, saying the baby had been drugged with boiled poppy seeds.

But when two Germans armed with guns decorated with party streamers entered, 16 pairs of hands covered the baby’s mouth and suffocated him.

“I was sure that I was going to be next,” Eliach says.

The family found refuge on the farm of a Christian family. They spent most of the rest of the war in a cave-like shelter under the pigsty, emerging only to cook and wash in the farmer’s kitchen. Her mother gave birth to a baby boy, named Hayyim after her dead son. He was left in a basket outside the home of a kind villager.

Liberation came on July 13, 1944. Yaffa and her family, Hayyim with them, returned to Ejszyszki. They moved into her grandmother’s house. It seemed like summer again.

But on Oct. 20, 1944, Polish partisans, looking to kill any surviving Jews, burst into the Sonensons’ home. The family was hiding in a small attic closet but a scratch on the polished floor--from a dresser the father had moved to hide the attic door--gave away their whereabouts.


“My mother was asking them to kill her first so she would not witness the death of her second child,” Eliach says. “But they shot the baby first and then they shot my mother.”

She counted the bullets: nine for her brother, 15 for her mother.

Today, no Jews live in Ejszyszki.

In the following months, Yaffa’s father was arrested by the Soviet KGB and was exiled to Siberia. Yaffa went to Palestine with her uncle. Her brother stayed behind, hoping for their father’s release.

Before they were separated, the children, now ages 8 and 12, each selected about a dozen family pictures to take with them. In the bottom of one of her shoes, Yaffa placed the black-and-white image of her father holding her on that last sunlit day.

In 1979, Eliach visited former death camps in Europe as a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust. She was horrified to find that the victims were portrayed from the perspective of their executioners; photographs showed them as emaciated creatures--dead or near death--with bulging eyes and skeletal bodies. It was impossible to identify with them, she said, as someone’s mother or father, sister or brother.

Eliach vowed to try and return to the Holocaust victims the beauty and grace of their lives. She decided to re-create Ejszyszki by assembling the photographs of its people and the words that they had written.

She began with the few photos she and her brother, who now lives in Israel, had taken with them three decades ago. Over the next 15 years, she traveled to six continents and all 50 American states in an exhausting search for pictures, diaries and letters. She spent more than $600,000, taking out loans against her life insurance policy and later with funding from a Guggenheim fellowship.


Eliach turned detective. Her search led her to knock on all 42 doors of an apartment building in Jerusalem. She hired security guards to accompany her to a rough section of Detroit to visit a Baptist church that had once been a synagogue. There, she found a fountain of material from Ejszyszki.

In Australia, she looked for the descendants of a family whose last name she did not know. Her only clue was that they had been known in the shtetl by the nickname “The Mice.” She mentioned this while on a Melbourne radio station. A listener called in with a tip that led her to the family.

In Ben Shemen, Israel, Eliach found a treasure-trove of letters and photographs buried in cans under a palm tree.

Luck also played a big role in her search.

One woman in Boston, Rosalind Rosenblatt, recognized a family name, Mikolovsky, in Eliach’s book “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust,” and contacted Eliach for more information. It turned out she had a photo album of 70 snapshots she had taken as a college graduate in the 1930s with a small $5 Brownie camera while visiting her grandmother in Ejszyszki.

Her task also required huge amounts of patience and empathy to convince families to part with their photographs--often their only tangible link with a past destroyed--so she could reproduce them. Many families came to look on her as a kind of guardian angel. She arranged for their leaking roofs to be fixed. She sent medication from the United States.

Sometimes, the quest for photographs required cash and goods. One photograph of market day in the shtetl set her back a VCR, a color TV, a radio, sneakers and a jogging suit.

So far, Eliach says she has collected over 8,000 photographs; 6,000 are of people who once lived in Ejszyszki. She says the Tower of Faces has pictures of 92% of the shtetl population killed in the Holocaust. And the collection is always growing. Almost every day she receives letters from Ejszyszki descendants who have visited the museum.


When, at last, she found herself alone in the tower at the opening ceremony for the Holocaust Museum, Eliach says she felt herself surrounded by the faces of Ejszyszki as she had been at their grave site when she returned to the town in 1987.

Then, an Ejszyszki survivor came up to her and said, “I don’t want to go back to New York. I want to stay here. It is home.”