By Leah Sauter
Dr. Yaffa Eliach (1937-2016) was a Holocaust survivor, born in Eishyshok, Lithuania, who was groundbreaking in the field of Holocaust survivor testimony. In 1974, she founded the Center for Holocaust Studies, Documentation and Research, the first organization in the United States dedicated to the study of the Holocaust. In 1990, the Center merged with the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, contributing over 3000 objects and 2600 testimonies to form the heart of the Museum’s collection. Through the Dr. Yaffa Eliach Annual Memorial Lecture, the Museum seeks to memorialize Dr. Eliach’s groundbreaking efforts in the field and to introduce the public to important subjects in current Holocaust scholarship.
Dr. Eliach began her lifelong project of gathering the testimony of Holocaust survivors when she taught at Brooklyn College in the late 1960s. While teaching classes on Holocaust history, she realized that many of her students were the children of survivors or even survivors themselves. She began to try to get her students to talk to their parents about their Holocaust experiences, and for the survivors in her classes to talk about their own experiences. She believed that these testimonies held immense scholarly and social value.
In 1974, Dr. Eliach established the Center for Holocaust Studies, Documentation, and Research. Not only was it the first organization to put its focus firmly on collecting survivor testimony, but it was the first organization in the United States dedicated solely to the study of the Holocaust. The Center original recorded testimonies on reel-to-reel tape, then audio cassette, and later videotape. Today, the Center’s collection is held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, which merged with the Center for Holocaust Studies in 1990. Often survivors were interviewed by their own children, adding even more of a human note to their testimony. She described her work as “rescuing the victims from anonymity.”
Through the Dr. Yaffa Eliach Annual Memorial Lecture, the Museum seeks to memorialize Dr. Eliach’s groundbreaking efforts in the field and to introduce the public to important subjects in current Holocaust scholarship. This year marked the third of these annual memorial lectures. The event concluded with Professor Debórah Dwork of Clark University speaking on what she called “The World of Auschwitz.” Dwork described meeting Dr. Eliach just after the publication of her first book on the experiences of Jewish children during the Holocaust, and she recalled Dr. Eliach’s kindness and encouragement. This praise held special meaning for Dwork not only because of Dr. Eliach’s academic prowess, but because of her experiences as a child survivor. As an homage to Dr. Eliach, Dwork began and ended her lecture with survivor testimony, and made the voices of survivors heard throughout her talk. She spoke the words of a Hungarian Jewish man who witnessed the murder of children, and the separation of his family, and the words of a young girl who by the time she was liberated from Auschwitz was so ill she could not stand. She used each of these testimonies to describe a different aspect of the evolution of Auschwitz from a small town in Poland into a mass killing center where over 1 million human beings were murdered. The last testimony she read was that of Sara Grossman-Weil, a woman who remembered the trauma of being separated from her loved ones at the selection in Auschwitz and watching her grandmother and young niece walk to their deaths. Dr. Dwork ended her lecture with a question Sara remembered asking herself as she entered the world of Auschwitz. A question that still haunts us today, and which will never have an answer. Sara’s question was, “Why?”
Leah Sauter is a graduate student at the Weiss-Livnat International M.A. Program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. She received a bachelor’s degree in History from Western Washington University, interned at the Wexler Oral History Project and the Ghetto Fighters House Museum, and completed the Yiddish Book Center’s Steiner Program. Leah is currently working with Yiddish-language testimony from the Center for Holocaust Studies oral history collection at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.