The Tow­er of Life: How Yaf­fa Eli­ach Rebuilt Her Town in Sto­ries and Photographs 

  • Review
By – September 6, 2022

Chana Stiefel’s and Susan Gal’s The Tow­er of Life nev­er men­tions the term Holo­caust,” yet their new children’s pic­ture book about his­to­ri­an Yaf­fa Eli­ach clear­ly rep­re­sents the antithe­sis of era­sure. Gear­ing the sto­ry to young read­ers, Stiefel and Gal empha­size the rich lega­cy of one par­tic­u­lar shtetl, kept alive through Eliach’s metic­u­lous doc­u­men­ta­tion and her stun­ning exhib­it at the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um. With­out deny­ing the hor­rors inflict­ed on Europe’s Jews, the book restores the dig­ni­ty of a lost civ­i­liza­tion both by illus­trat­ing the past and call­ing atten­tion to Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity in the present.

Young Yaf­fa Eli­ach is an ordi­nary child blessed with a lov­ing fam­i­ly and close-knit com­mu­ni­ty. When the book opens, she lives in Eishyshok, a small town sit­u­at­ed in present-day Lithua­nia (for­mer­ly Poland). As in oth­er books about the Holo­caust for chil­dren, there is an ele­giac tone abrupt­ly inter­rupt­ed by the Nazi inva­sion. Scenes of sled­ding and skat­ing and trips to the crowd­ed out­door mar­ket quick­ly become a dis­tant mem­o­ry as the Ger­man army assaults the town, leav­ing behind destruc­tion and death.

Where anoth­er author might prin­ci­pal­ly focus on the family’s pre­war obser­vance of Jew­ish hol­i­days, Stiefel’s approach is more sub­tle. She fore­shad­ows Eliach’s future by describ­ing com­mu­nal trips to the ceme­tery, where grand­par­ents told tales of their ances­tors buried beneath their feet.” These sto­ries are instru­men­tal in keep­ing their faith and tra­di­tions alive,” and their cus­tom will reap­pear lat­er, when Eli­ach devotes her career to bring­ing her ances­tors back to life. Anoth­er dis­tinc­tive part of Eliach’s child­hood is her grandmother’s pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio. Peo­ple seek out Grand­ma Alte’s bar mitz­vah por­traits and Jew­ish New Year cards, both the prod­ucts of an Amer­i­can cam­era. After the war, Eli­ach will under­take the sacred mis­sion of recov­er­ing and arrang­ing these pro­found pieces of evi­dence for her books and, lat­er, her exhibit.

Eliach’s fam­i­ly escapes from the Nazis, hid­ing in the for­est until the Russ­ian army lib­er­ates their home. All the while, Stiefel main­tains her focus on the strength they derive from hold­ing on to mem­o­ries, and the solace Eli­ach finds in read­ing, writ­ing, and telling inspir­ing sto­ries. Although the family’s shel­ter is ten­u­ous, and they are cold, hun­gry, filthy, and fright­ened,” the book’s mes­sage is con­sis­tent­ly opti­mistic. Giv­en that Eli­ach ulti­mate­ly tri­umphed in recre­at­ing the past, Stiefel paints a truth­ful por­trait appro­pri­ate for those just begin­ning to learn about the Holocaust.

Susan Gal’s art­work, mean­while, is both dra­mat­ic and acces­si­ble, an invi­ta­tion to look at Eliach’s life with com­pas­sion and awe. Chil­dren will relate to the young girl in a bright ging­ham dress play­ing with her friends, and even to the scene of her des­per­ate fam­i­ly qui­et­ly read­ing togeth­er by can­dle­light in the for­est. Oth­er episodes in her life will be less famil­iar, but Gal’s con­struc­tion of a con­tin­u­ous visu­al sequence allows read­ers to assem­ble each image into one com­pelling pic­ture. When the Nazis invade, the pages’ white back­grounds turn deep red, peo­pled with dark, face­less char­ac­ters. Using water­col­or, ink, and dig­i­tal ele­ments, Gal com­bines indi­vid­ual por­traits, land­scapes, and inte­ri­ors with inter­spersed sepia pho­tographs. The result is a com­plete rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her sub­ject, much as Eli­ach achieved in her own schol­ar­ship. A ver­ti­cal two-page spread of the Holo­caust Museum’s exhi­bi­tion on Eishyshok is the cul­mi­na­tion of a remark­able life — and of a book that ensures it will not be forgotten.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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