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  Home > Books > History > Holocaust & Anti-Semitism >

There Once Was a World: A Nine-Hundred-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok
There Once Was a World: A Nine-Hundred-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok
 
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Yaffa Eliach

"In the soaring, three-story space that is the Tower of Life at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sixteen hundred photographs collected by the historian Yaffa Eliach give face to a murdered people. In There Once Was a World, Eliach brilliantly and movingly records the history of that people.

Nineteen years of scholarship, a poet's ear, and a storyteller's voice have yielded what is perhaps the richest, fullest, most detailed portrait of Eastern European Jewish life that we will ever have, a book that encompasses both the sweep of history and an intimate view of the day-to-day lives of generations of small-town Jews, in all their uniqueness and universality. Eliach's own roots in Eishyshok, as a descendant of one of the five founding families and herself one of only twenty-nine survivors, give her work an unrivaled depth and passion.

Two million visitors a year enter the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where 1,600 photographs from the shtetl of Eishyshok constitute what many consider to be the most moving exhibit in the museum - the Tower of Life. In this soaring, three-story space we see the people of Eishyshok at their weddings and bar mitzvahs, their social clubs and literary gatherings, their winter sports and summer camps. Now Professor Yaffa Eliach, whose haunting collection of photographs gave faces to a murdered people, has written the history of that people.

Eliach's nine-century saga of Eastern European Jewish life is richer and fuller than any ever written. Her research took her from family attics on six continents to state archives no scholar had seen since the start of the Cold War. Confronted with the near total disappearance of the world of the shtetl, Eliach was indefatigable in her search for the truth-of a people, a place, a culture.

Some of what she found was as familiar as the chicken soup on a Jewish table, or an image from a painting by Chagall; other findings were more unexpected. Her research on family life, for example, shows that the "world of our fathers" was actually a world in which all the affairs of daily life were run by mothers. Her profound understanding of medieval history illuminates her description of early Lithuania, the last pagan country in Europe and the only one where Jews lived on equal terms with the rest of the population. Access to family letters ,and memorabilia and interviews with shtetl survivors gave her startling insight into one of history's most troubling questions: Why were the Jews so blind to the Nazi threat? In Eishyshok, she learned, as in hundreds of communities in Eastern Europe, the German occupiers of World War I had been so civilized that no one could believe their sons would be any different. Yet the June day in 1941 when Nazi troops roared into Eishyshok marked the beginning of the end for the shtetls 3,500 Jews.

In this book, as in her Tower, Eliach has sought to emphasize life over death. Nineteen years of scholarship, a poet's ear, and a storyteller's voice have yielded a book that contains both the sweep of history and an intimate portrait of the day-to-day lives of generations of small-town Jews, in all their uniqueness and universality. But it is Eliach's own roots in Eishyshok, as descendant of one of the five founding families and one of only twenty-nine survivors, which give her work its depth and passion."

Available in softcover

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