In life, we intersect with so many people. Some will impact our lives for the better, some for the worse. Some will even leave an indelible mark along the way. But very few people will truly shape your soul. For me, Yaffa Eliach a”h was that person. No one has ever impacted me in my formative years, and as I grew into adulthood, quite like Yaffa. She met me as a rebellious and intense teenager. I had just returned from my year at Hebrew University, at the behest of my mother, specifically to study with Yaffa at Brooklyn College. I was all of 18-years-old; she was in her early 50s. Despite the age difference, we became very close as she took me under her wing.
On Wednesday, November 9th, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, I said my last goodbye to my teacher, mentor, surrogate mother, confidante and friend. As I listened to the hespedim at her funeral, given by her family members, I looked up in the Fifth Avenue Synagogue to see a balcony filled with the next generation of Jews: yeshiva boys who came to pay their respects and who received a glimpse into what once was her world. They will never know any other way of learning about the Holocaust, for Yaffa had shaped the field of Holocaust Studies. Yaffa built it into a field that taught from the perspective of the lives of those we lost, and about those who managed to survive, rather than just about a genocide that was perpetrated against the Jews.
Yaffa preserved their memory through her books, oral history interviews, photographs, letters and artifacts that she collected from around the globe, of the world that existed before six millions Jews were murdered. Her life’s work culminated in a permanent exhibit in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC — a “Tower of Faces” preserving for eternity the faces and everyday lives of those stolen from her hometown of Eishyshok in Lithuania (along with her book, There Once Was a World).
Millions of Jewish and non-Jewish visitors to the museum are able to experience that world, a world just like any other Jewish shtetl in Europe, before the Nazis and their collaborators destroyed everything they touched. But she would not allow others to learn about us through the eyes of our murderers, to be seen as piles of bodies, or sick and emaciated survivors; rather, each person had a name, a life, a world. They never were, nor would they ever be, just a number in the annals of history.
All of this and more, that I learned from her, I took into my classroom of seventh graders as I began teaching the Holocaust to Hebrew school students in Brooklyn. At the same time, I went on to become her teacher’s assistant (TA) and one of her researchers. She not only fed my mind though, she welcomed me into her home, her Shabbos and sukkah tables, and fed me countless meals in her warm kitchen on Avenue N. We sat there and talked of so many things and all that life brought our way, all that time feeding and shaping my soul.
When I called my mom in tears a few days after the funeral. I learned that Yaffa had given my mom a book that she had inscribed on the occasion of my graduation from college. She knew my mother well and even had her join in the task of preserving the memory of Jewish life that existed before and during the war. Yaffa connected my mother with a family who needed letters that had been written during the interwar and war years to be translated from Yiddish to English. My mom did so, and I assisted in editing them. Together, we looked into the world of a family living through the hardships of shtetl life and getting closer and closer to war. Their story unfolded in each letter to their American relatives, until the letters ended, when their voices were silenced; but thanks to Yaffa, and my mother, not their memory. These are just some of the moments that Yaffa shared in my life, and which influenced my world view.
Along the way, she guided me and even urged me to go abroad to study at the Oxford Centre for Post Graduate Hebrew Studies in Oxford, England. And as I sat and listened to her husband, Rabbi David Eliach, at the funeral, I realized just how I had actually made it to Oxford, the year that I turned 20 there. I had been accepted to the program, but could not afford to go. We were about $1,500 short. I had told Yaffa this and somehow within 48 hours, a donor came forward and wanted to pay that final part of my tuition. Despite my asking who the donor was, she insisted that the donor wished to remain anonymous. But as I listened to Rabbi Eliach speak of all the tzedakah she quietly gave, and some of which he found out about later, I realized what I had suspected all along; it was Yaffa who had made it possible for me to study at Oxford, and I had only been a part of her life for a little over a year by then. But that was Yaffa, she loved with her whole heart, and she quickly believed in me and loved me. It was such a blessing for me in more ways than she will ever know.
As life went on we kept in touch, no matter where life took me or her. She danced at my wedding a little over a year later and we kept each other up to date on her children, grandchildren, my studies, my law career and the birth of my daughter. Though we would speak throughout the year, I tried never to miss a call before Rosh Hashanah, or for her birthday on Yom Yerushalayim. She was so proud that it was her Hebrew birthday. And I was equally proud that my daughter was born on Yom HaShoah. We had a good laugh about that, one of many that we shared, for Yaffa was always full of light.
At the funeral, I ran into her daughter-in-law, whom I had not seen in many years, and who said to me right away, “She loved you so much.” I have not stopped tearing up every time I think of those words, because I knew it, and I loved Yaffa too, just as much. And as I continued to sit through the funeral in tears, and through some moments of laughter, listening to stories her family told about her, I realized that she had told me so many of them herself. She was the best of storytellers who had let me in to hear them. And as I heard their words, I remembered her words. I heard about things she did, her views of the world, her positive attitude, despite all she had been through as a child survivor, who had lost so much.
I learned of her fight for justice, her standing up to oppressors, her race to record oral histories and to preserve memory, and her challenge to the Hasidic world as she researched and wrote about Hasidism, despite her being a woman in that insular men’s world. I learned of her unwavering faith in Hashem.
I learned of her as mother and grandmother, and was comforted by one of the last memories I have of her, as her grandson spoke. He spoke of the special gifts she gave to her grandchildren and her famous hair style; the long hair she kept in a bun on top of her head. I remember Yaffa with my own daughter, taking pictures, during my last visit with her in her home in Manhattan. She gave my daughter a doll, and I remember how my daughter for years would not stop asking how long Yaffa’s hair was, or remembering her as the lady with the bun on top of her head. She has that doll in her room till this day.
I sat there taking it all in, feeling the memories rush in, and saying my last goodbye. I asked for mechilah (forgiveness) because I knew I had disappointed her when I switched fields and went into law, instead of remaining in the Holocaust education field. I hope that she does forgive me because, despite that change, she made me who I am today. I see the world through a glass is half-full perspective. I see every human being as containing a spark of Hashem. I am the family historian and often photographer, who makes sure everything has an accurate date attached to it. I have become a preserver of memory, a fighter for justice and an individual who stands up against oppressors while giving voice to victims. I learned how to speak to people in the most vulnerable of moments, how to interview them about a traumatic experience that they had suffered, and to give them strength as they stand up to those who harmed them. Because of Yaffa, I became a prosecutor. Because of Yaffa I teach younger prosecutors all of this. I hope Yaffa knows that I did not go too far afield.
But what saddens me most of all, is that she never got to meet my wonderful partner. By the time we had met and I was ready to come out to Yaffa, she was fading away into darkness. This beacon of light and preserver of memory was losing a battle against a disease that stole that light and her memory. I am grateful to her daughter who told me not to go see her in her final years; for all I have are the memories of Yaffa before; that Yaffa. The Yaffa I knew, would have understood me. Would have loved me anyway. Would have been proud that I stood up with dignity against my oppressors, even if they were rabbis. She would have loved the fact that my faith never wavered, despite what life sent my way. She would have loved the young woman we have raised, and the partner I now share my life with. She would have been happy to hear that my ex-husband and I are still close, and that we were not a family that made our own little Holocaust, as she used to say.
But most of all, I hope and pray that she is proud of me, of the path that I have chosen, because like her, I want to bring light into this world, to effect change, and at the end of my days to look back, G-d willing, and know that I mattered in this world, even a little bit. May the neshamah of Yaffa Sonenson Eliach, bat Moshe and Ziporrah, have an aliyah.