The Tower Of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town In Stories And Photographs by Chana Stiefel & Susan Gal

This is an important book about the Holocaust and one woman’s efforts to memorialize the lives so tragically lost to Nazi cruelty. It’s an inspiring true story matched only by the astonishingly vivid artwork Susan Gal uses here to bring Yaffa Eliach’s story to life.

Y’all, I could go on and on about this art. So much care has gone into it, from the blue-black of Yaffa’s hair to the exquisite patternwork of the clothes, to the truly inspired montage of photos over artistic depictions of everyday life in the Polish shtetl of Eishyshok (now a Lithuanian town called Eisiskes.) Ms Gal was inspired by the Tower Of Life memorial Dr Eliach curated at the Holocaust Museum and it shows in every joyful brush stroke, in every moment of hope captured in the face of despair. This art deserves to win awards.

The accompanying text is competent to good. I know that that sounds like weirdly faint praise when it’s not meant to be. It’s just that the actual point of the book is only truly elucidated in the afterword. The Tower Of Life serves to remind viewers that real people, people who loved and laughed and were just doing their best to get by, had their lives brutally stolen from them. Remembering them as victims has value, but not as much as remembering them as fellow human beings whose lives should have been celebrated, whose stories need to be remembered as touchstones for our shared humanity. The preceding text almost closes that circle between celebrating life and promoting empathy but doesn’t quite manage it, which feels like a weird disservice to everyone involved. I mean, this is a kid’s book. Feel free to spell that point out for the, likely very young, reader.

And, I mean, I get it, you don’t want to go overboard saying “it could happen to you” and traumatizing some poor 8 year-old. Writing children’s books is hard work, so more power to all the children’s books writers out there!

The story itself is a brief, kid-friendly biography of Dr Eliach. As a young girl, Yaffa lives happily in her small Polish town, occasionally helping in her Grandma Alte’s photography studio. When she’s six years old, the Nazis come rolling into town. Her father takes her, her older brother and her mother, and flees into the woods. A kind farmer hides them underground, and they wait out the rest of World War II in hiding. Afterwards, with the entire Jewish community of Eishyshok uprooted if not outright destroyed, Yaffa becomes a refugee, eventually emigrating to Egypt, then Jerusalem, then the United States.

In the US, Yaffa becomes a renowned historian and professor, and is invited by President Jimmy Carter to contribute to the development of the Holocaust Museum. But Yaffa doesn’t want to memorialize the darkness of those days. What she wants to do is bring what was lost back to life, and decides that the best way to do this is try to collect the many photographs her grandmother took, that were sent by the community to their relatives worldwide as part of their Jewish New Year’s Eve tradition. This results in the construction of an extraordinary, three-story high tribute to the Jewish residents of Eishyshok, a memorial that continues to touch viewers with the sheer breadth of humanity on display.

While the book is a short read, and mostly relays what it needs to, I thought that the discussion of how Dr Eliach procured those photos was a little odd. Of course not everyone would want to let go of their beloved photographs! It’s weird to have that chalked up to a lack of trust, followed almost immediately by the fact that several photos had to be bartered for with sneakers and color TVs. This is a condensation of motives that I did not care for, because it made the photograph holders sound venal instead of, say, sentimental (as I would be!) or needy.

Overall, however, this is a book well worth reading. Have I mentioned that the art is knock-you-off-your-feet outstanding? It’s truly glorious, and a worthy tribute to a wonderful story.

The Tower Of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town In Stories And Photographs by Chana Stiefel & Susan Gal was published October 4 2022 by Scholastic Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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