By Claire Bracken
Yaffa Eliach, a survivor and storyteller of the Holocaust, passed away at the age of 79 on November 8, 2016 at her home in New York City.
Dr. Eliach was born on May 31, 1937 in Eišiškės, Lithuania as Yaffa Sonenson. She was just four years old when German soldiers invaded her small hometown and massacred the Jewish population of 3,500 in two days. The young Yaffa and her family were able to survive by hiding with a Polish woman and later moved to hide in an attic. Yaffa passed her time in hiding listening to her father’s stories of religion and family memories, and practicing the Hebrew alphabet.
After WWII, Yaffa spent the rest of her childhood and adolescent years in Israel, where she met her husband, David Eliach. Yaffa Eliach and her husband moved to New York City in 1954. It was here that she received her PhD, and then became a professor in history and literature at Brooklyn College.
In 1974, Dr. Eliach opened the Center for Holocaust Studies, Documentation and Research—the first organization in the United States dedicated to the study of the Holocaust. Yaffa was a trailblazer: She was one of the first people to collect primary documentation about the Holocaust, and she used it to raise people’s awareness of Holocaust history. The Center documented the Holocaust from the experiences of those who survived it. Dr. Eliach wanted to create an organization that would “restore human dignity to the victims” of the Holocaust.
Over the course of 26 years, the Center collected oral histories, documents, photographs, and artifacts that changed how the victims were perceived. The Center showed not only the struggles that people endured, but also the triumphs and spirits of all those who experienced the Holocaust. Through collecting oral histories, the Center prioritized individuals’ experiences and combatted common notions of impersonal victimhood.
The Center for Holocaust Studies merged with the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust on August 2, 1990. Dr. Eliach saw in the Museum of Jewish Heritage a commitment to presenting a full spectrum of Jewish life and history—before, during, and after the Holocaust. Thanks to the Center’s impressive community outreach, its collection provided unique materials to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Its contribution of artifacts, documents, testimonies, and photographs have since been put on display in the Core Exhibition and in numerous special exhibitions.
“I believe in the need for a number of major institutions dedicated to Holocaust studies, such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City,” said Dr. Eliach. She went on to describe the importance of artifacts in “rescu[ing] the victims from anonymity.” Dr. Eliach’s hope was that “these archives, in their new home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, will continue to serve the public as they have in the past.”
The Museum is hosting an inaugural yahrzeit lecture in memory of Dr. Eliach on Sunday, October 29.
Claire Bracken is a Public Relations intern at the Museum.