Collector of Souls

updated 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

A YOUNG WOMAN WEEPS. A TEENAGE BOY leans against a wall for support. A middle-aged man softly murmurs a prayer. Here, in the Tower of Faces at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, simple photographs of everyday life in the Polish town of Ejszyszki—laughing children, solemn rabbis, proud bar mitzvah boys—have the power of a devastating experience. In September 1941 the Ejszyszki shtetl ceased to exist except in photographs or memory, when, in only two days, the Nazis massacred all but 29 of its 3,500 Jews. "Even though we are not Jewish, we came to Washington just to see this," says Debora DiCicco of Brooklyn, as she and her son Matthew, 10, linger at the crowded exhibit. "We thought it was important for Matthew to witness. My husband was too overwhelmed and left."

It has been nine months since the Holocaust Museum opened, and despite its daunting subject matter—the extermination of 11 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents and others by the Nazis in World War II—it has become one of the most visited sites in the nation's capital. Already, more than 1.3 million people—almost the same number who visit the White House in a full year—have threaded their way through its three vast exhibition galleries. Now, with the success of Steven Spielberg's acclaimed new movie about the Holocaust, Schindler's List, Naomi Paiss, the museum's director of communications, says, "There is definitely increased interest."

Designed by James Freed, a Jewish refugee who fled Germany with his sister in 1939 at age 9, the museum is meant to have the aura of a death camp and to fill visitors with some of the dread and horror felt by those who were herded off to Buchenwald, Dachau or Treblinka to die. The main lobby is laid out to resemble one of the train stations where Jews were forced into cattle cars. The elevators are simulated gas chambers. The many exhibition areas include one on the history of the Nazi Occupation, another on the death camps, still another on the liberators. Among the numerous artifacts is a heap of 4,000 shoes that had been worn by the camp inmates and an actual cattle car. Yet most visitors are particularly moved by the Tower of Faces. "It was a shattering experience," admits Jane Mathias, a museum visitor from Woodbridge, Conn. "In this room you remember that these were real people with families, hopes and futures, not just statistics." Toward that end, says Paiss, "its creator, Yaffa Eliach, probably gave to us our most important gift."

Yaffa Eliach, 56, is one of the 29 survivors among the Ejszyszki Jews. Many of the faces in the 1,200 photographs she painstakingly collected over 14 years are those of relatives or friends. It was her idea to construct a montage that, let the faces of Ejszyszki express the total horror of the Final Solution. "People asked me, 'Why this small town? It's some godforsaken shtetl,' " says Eliach, now a professor of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College. "And I said, 'This small town will be a memorial to all small towns.' "

Standing in front of the tower, Eliach points to a photograph of herself at age 4 in her father's arms and another of her feeding chickens—both of them taken on the day the Nazis arrived. Her grandmother, the town photographer, snapped the photos, she notes matter-of-factly, and was led away three months later and shot. Eliach points to Lauren Bacall's relatives on one section of the wall—and to two of Ed Asner's cousins, who survived the massacre. "I like to be alone here with my friends," she says of her long-dead townsfolk. "I have conversations with them. 'Do you like it here in Washington in your new home? I know it's far away from Ejszyszki.' Most of them speak to me, and there is a sense of contentment among them. Their world was not lost."

Eliach's was not lost either, but it changed drastically when, on the day of the Ejszyszki massacre, she and her family escaped and went into hiding with the help of Christian friends. On the run, her family lived in a cave beneath a pigsty and then in a forest. Nine months later, fellow Jews, also seeking refuge, strangled her baby brother to death in her mother's arms because they feared that he might cry and reveal their whereabouts. "It was difficult for people with children," she says. "They could not run as fast. We were constantly moving. My brother and I would play 'I wish.' I wished that I wouldn't be killed lying down. I wanted to be running."

After the liberation of Ejszyszki by the Russians, Eliach's family returned to her grand mother's house. One day, Polish partisans, believing that too many Jews had survived the war, broke in and shot to death Eliach's mother and new baby brother, who had been born in the cave. In 1944 her father was arrested by the KGB on trumped-up charges and exiled to Siberia for 17 years. (They were reunited in 1960.) When the war was over, Eliach, her uncle and brother Yitzhak, now 61, emigrated to Palestine. Eliach managed to smuggle 10 of her family's precious photos out of Poland by hiding them in her shoes.

In 1954, Eliach, then 17, married her high school principal, David Eliach, now 71. That year they emigrated to Brooklyn, where they raised two children and nine grandchildren. "I really don't wonder, 'Why me? Why did I survive?' " she says. "Older people often wonder that. It's known as survivor guilt, and they wonder why they are alive instead of another family member. But I never see myself as a survivor. I see myself as a child who lived through the Holocaust."

Living through it has given her a special sensibility. "I have a great sense of life enjoyment," she says in her soft, lightly accented voice. "I guess after knowing that you face death, you really accept life as a great gift. We had nothing except dreams. I always say that two words are not in my dictionary: 'tired' and 'no.' "

Her tireless dedication is much of the reason that the Tower of Faces exists. In 1979 Yaffa Eliach was selected by President Carter to serve on the U.S. Commission on the Holocaust, which decided that the best way to honor the victims was to build a living memorial and an educational institution. Eliach was sent on a fact-finding mission to concentration camps in Eastern Europe. "It was on the flight between Warsaw and Kiev that I decided on my project," she says. "After nine days of seeing nothing but death and destruction, I decided that I wanted to tell the story of my town. What was life like before death? I wanted to show how people looked and lived, but not through the eye of an unfriendly camera—not emaciated and dehumanized, but the way they saw themselves. Everybody told me that finding these old family photos was impossible."

But "impossible" was another word that surviving the Nazis had banished from Eliach's vocabulary. She turned her life upside down to fulfill her dream. She took out loans against her life-insurance policy, piled up credit-card debts and secured a 1987 Guggenheim grant, eventually traveling tens of thousands of miles over six continents. (She estimates her quest ultimately cost about $600,000.) In small towns she foraged through dank basements and musty attics to find forgotten snapshots that had been secreted out of Ejszyszki, now in Lithuania.

Prying the photos away from their owners required dedication and tact. Sometimes Eliach would court families for months in order to build up their trust. Often she had to hire a photographer to visit a home and reproduce the original that same day. Occasionally money had to change hands. One snapshot of market day in Ejszyszki set Eliach back $4,000, a TV set and a VCR.

Today, even as the lower stuns and moves visitors, Eliach insists that her mission is not yet finished. "I want to try to have every single family represented on the wall," she says. "I constantly feel I have quivering souls in my hands. And I must do something with them. They are begging to be put to proper rest. This part of the museum is to assure that no other souls will be put in that position. And for me it's essential. It's a must. It's an obligation."

MARY HUZINEC in Washington and Brooklyn

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