Review: The Tower of Life

The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs

by Chana Siefel, illustrated by Susan Gal

Scholastic Press, 2022

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Jeannette Brod

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In The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, Chana Stiefel and Susan Gal have created a fitting tribute to the creator of the Tower of Life (or Tower of Faces) at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Professor Yaffa Eliach spent much of her professional life gathering photos, diaries, and stories from the village of Eishyshok that her family fled as the Nazis invaded. When charged with creating a Holocaust memorial for the Museum, she traveled across continents and into the homes of Holocaust survivors to gather nearly 6,000 photographs from inhabitants of her town. She hoped to create a memorial that would capture the dignity and humanity of the townspeople who lived ordinary lives in unsuspecting innocence of the horrors that were to come. Yaffa Elliach was visionary in the use of testimony and artifacts to tell stories from the shtetl life the Holocaust destroyed. 
Eliach’s grandmother had a photography shop above the family pharmacy. Her portraits and photos of family life made their way across the globe as postcards that served as New Years greetings from the relatives. Yaffa reasoned that just as she, as a young girl, had sequestered some photos in her hasty departure, others might have done the same. Now all she had to do was locate survivors and their relatives. It was an odyssey that lasted seventeen years. The picture book spans almost fifty years of Eliach’s life. It takes the reader from her childhood until the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. It paints a portrait of Eishyshok and chronicles Eliach’s wartime experiences, her postwar life and marriage in Israel, her studies, professorship and family life in Brooklyn and her pioneering work as a Holocaust educator and scholar.

The illustrations reflect the different moods and episodic nature of the story: sepia tones for images of old photographs; white backgrounds for an untouched vision of shtetl life; red and black for the violence of war and the challenges of life in hiding; blue for a life rebuilt in Israel. The book includes a timeline, bibliography and limited background information. There is a section titled Every Person, A World. With each photo, Eliach saved a world. In the memorial she created, her neighbors can see one another and visitors to the Museum can reflect on lost worlds. The author and illustrator address the cruelty of war, the resiliency of survivorship, the importance of memorialization, the role of museums, and the tenacity of the human spirit. The book can be useful as a read-aloud to introduce difficult subject matter in the classroom or at home. It tells the story of a life well worth memorializing.
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Reviewer Jeanette Brod is the Children’s and Teen Services Associate at the New Milford Public Library in Connecticut. She also serves as an Educational Consultant at Connecticut’s Voices of Hope HERO Center. Jeanette is the former Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Sholom in New Milford and a past Vice-President of the Children’s Book Council in New York City. She holds a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. Jeanette and her husband, Alexander, as the proud parents of two grown children.