Book: There Once Was a World

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Book:

There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok

Author: Yaffa Eliach
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Publisher: Little Brown & Co

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. 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. 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?

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Eishyshok, in Lithuania, was for nine centuries a center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, where Jews lived “under all the various governments that had fought for control of it: Lithuanian, Polish, German, Russian, and Soviet.” But as a result of the Holocaust, writes Eishyshok native Yaffa Eliach in this rich, vastly detailed history, “nearly a millennium of vibrant Jewish life had been reduced to stark images of victimization and death.” Eliach offers his chronicle by way of a memorial to those lost citizens and their disappeared history, working through archives, family photo albums, and the memories of survivors. It is a fine and fitting memorial indeed, one that ranks alongside the important work of Raul Hilberg and Lucy Dawidowicz. —Gregory McNamee

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