|Scholastic Press, 2022|
This new picture book, (already graced with three stars and Junior Library Guild status at the time of this writing, but likely to garner more accolades in coming months), achieves everything a picture book should. It entertains, it engages emotions, it informs, it sparks curiosity and empathy, and it is unforgettable. It also stimulates future actions and investigation. Author Chana Stiefel and illustrator Susan Gal managed to convey all of the above and more, capturing a true story with the magic of a fairy tale in THE TOWER OF LIFE: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town In Stories and Photographs.
Even the fist lines ring with storytelling appeal:
"There once was a girl named Yaffa."
The small Jewish town, a shtetl, had a magical-sounding name: Eishyshok (Ay-shi-shok). It was, though, very real, and so was Yaffa. So were the other residents, rooted in generations beyond generations of families, nine hundred years of them, who had lived there with love, laughter, tears, and troubles, always comforted by the community's the surroundings, and the history within which they lived.
The first pages reveal a community from the not-so-far past filled with storytelling, snowball throwing, summer lake swimming, market days, and family photo events. These pages resonate with contemporary children and their lives: weddings, graduations, birthdays, new babies, holidays. In fact, Yaffa's Grandma Alte was one of the village's favorite photographers. Those photos were kept in family albums, but also mailed around the world to family members who had found new lives elsewhere.
When German tanks and troops invaded in 1941, Eishyshok was part of Poland and the results were devastating to anyone who was Jewish. Yaffa and her father escaped through a window, but not before Yaffa managed to tuck a few precious photos into her shoe. In two days, 3,500 resident Jews were killed by gunfire and explosions, erasing and uprooting nine hundred years of history.
This tragic episode and the following years of hiding and struggle form the middle pages of this picture book, suggesting struggle and suffering in ways that are not too severe for the youngest audiences but will resonate with depth and meaning for older ones.
Then the tone of the following pages shifts to reveal the powerful, positive path of Yaffa's life, a life that deserves the attention of us all. She survived, married, moved to the US, and became a professor of history. She shared the story of her original village with her children and others, sharing those few precious photos she had rescued during her escape.
When the US Holocaust Museum was planned, she was invited by President Jimmy Carter to help design a memorial within the museum. Her own photos inspired her to seek images of LIFE in Eishyshok, not of the horrific disaster. She spent years reaching out and traveling among the diaspora from her village, those who might have escaped, but also tracking down those who had received photos from happier times. With patience and permissions, she reconstructed her village, image by image and story by story.
Within the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., you can personally view the TOWER OF FACES from Eishyshok.
Eishyshok was a relatively small village, one of many that suffered similar erasure and deaths in massive numbers. In this memorial, though, we encounter the reality behind the horror, the lives behind those incomparable numbers. You can read about some of the stories behind those faces by clicking the aTOWER OF FACES above.
The back matter includes a timeline of the village and of Yaffa's life, as well as an excellent bibliography to document sources. Several excellent related picture book titles are also provided to pursue further reading with young people. The author note indicates this is more than a testament to an amazing woman and what she accomplished. It is also intended to inspire everyone of every age to recognize that they are connected to a wider world, a global community that needs everyone to speak up, stand up, and take actions when needed.
You can learn more about how Chana Stiefel came to write about this remarkable woman and what she accomplished in an interview on the blog Picture Book Builders (highly recommend!). All are valuable pursuits, but above all else I recommend seeking out and reading this book. Once you do, decide for yourself if you agree it is a story that should be, MUST be, shared widely with readers of many ages. For anyone within your circle who even hints at being a Holocaust doubter or denier, this might be a worthy gift, even if arrives in their hands anonymously. Each and every loss during the Holocaust was an individual person, but each life was also tethered to dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of others, by blood, acquaintance, and heritage. This picture book does a better job of revealing and reminding us of that than any other I've read.