Over the course of two days, September 25 and 26, 1941, the Nazis murdered the residents of Eishyshok, Lithuania, bringing an end to its 900-year history. In this work, Yaffa Eliach chronicles this history, bringing to life a community so horrendously destroyed.
The seeds for this work were planted while the author was collecting photographs of her hometown, many of which are now displayed in the Tower of Life at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In the process of collecting and researching these photos, Dr. Eliach came to realize that, while the Museum exhibition would memorialize Eishyshok’s destruction, she wanted to present more of a living and comprehensive history.
By focusing on this one town, Dr. Eliach hoped to make her work relevant to the broader study of other Eastern European towns. She uses Eishyshok as a paradigm for the shtetl, the kind of small Jewish community that once dotted Eastern Europe. Eishyshok also serves as a mirror of world events, events reflected in the town’s history, development, and culture.
Eliach traces Eishyshok’s history from its origins and the establishment of a Jewish community there, through its social and cultural rise to its tragic end. But this work is not a dry history or a simple recitation of facts and events. Instead, Eliach personalizes the story, regaling the reader with descriptions of individuals, their occupations, and the major social and academic institutions to which they belonged. She also uses photographs to bring life and dimension to the story.
Hundreds of photos, most often of people rather than places, remind the reader that Eishyshok was home to a Jewish community of nearly 3,000, and it seems that almost all of those faces are represented here. She uses photos liberally, placing one on almost every page, sometimes several on a page. Impressively, each photograph is captioned to identify the subject (even each person in a group, if their names are known) and to describe their fate. One example is a picture from the mid 1930s of a young girl standing beside someone dressed as Mickey Mouse. This scene, at first funny and recognizable, swiftly turns tragic when we read that the young girl and her family fell victim to the 1941 slaughter.
Dr. Eliach supplements her massive text with an impressive array of supporting materials which work to make the book valuable to readers and researchers of all levels. Numerous maps show the changing borders of this area. Detailed notes document every source. A glossary and index make the work accessible, and multiple tables chart various aspects of Eishyshok’s life and culture: the distribution of occupations among Jews and non-Jews, and statistics concerning marriages, divorces, births, and deaths. Her list of sources stretches on for twenty-three pages and includes a variety works and resources, from unpublished manuscripts to public and private archives, to a list of over one hundred people whom she interviewed. She also includes an extensive bibliography, citing there hundreds of works on the history of Eastern European Jewry.
Eliach begins her book with a quote from Albert Camus: “Perhaps the easiest way of making a town’s acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love and how they die.” In There Once Was a World Eliach has lovingly and painstakingly done that, creating a memorial to the full, rich lives of the people of Eishyshok. But she has done even more. The horrific fact that this community was wiped out in only two days links it inexorably to any of the shtetls, towns, and cities whose Jews were systematically murdered during the Holocaust. By carefully reconstructing the beginning and end of Eishyshok, Yaffa Eliach adds depth and dimension to the story of all the victims of Nazism, many of whom remain among the nameless, faceless millions.
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