Once a World

June 14, 2016

Four-year-old Yaffa Sonenson on the day Nazis marched into Eishyshok in Poland

The black-and-white photograph, taken in 1935, shows a woman identified as Esther Lapp posing with someone in an early Mickey Mouse costume.  The image is part of an extensive collection depicting everyday life in a Jewish shtetl called Eishyshok in Poland from 1890 until 1941.  There are studio portraits, class pictures and family photos, as well as images chronicling everything from birthday parties to civic group meetings.  Many are now part of a permanent exhibition called the “Tower of Faces” at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  The photographs have been carefully documented by date and occasion, with many of the individuals identified by name.  There is a 1936 group portrait of kindergarten students dressed in costume for a Purim play.  A photo taken in 1938 shows Hebrew school children working in a garden “in preparation for immigration to Palestine.”  Another image shows a four-year-old girl feeding chickens in the front yard of her family’s summer home on the day German troops marched into Eishyshok in 1941.

There is a certain poignancy to any photographs depicting a vanished world, all the more so in this case because of what is not shown.  Three months after that last picture was taken, all but a handful of the Eishyshok’s Jews were rounded up and murdered by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen in mass shootings over a two-day period, ending 900 years of Jewish history in that town.  Among the survivors was Yaffa Sonenson, the little girl who had been photographed feeding chickens at her family’s summer home.  She grew up to become Yaffa Eliach (her married name), a professor of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College and a member of President Carter’s Holocaust Commission.  She collected 10,000 photographs of life in Eishyshok, many of them taken by her maternal grandparents, who were the town’s photographers.  She also conducted nearly 2,000 interviews with former residents to produce a comprehensive history of Eishyshok entitled There Once Was a World.  Her goal, she said, was  “to create a memorial to life, not to death.”