If you are like me and you find yourself repeatedly drawn to stories about WWII, then you won’t want to miss today’s nonfiction picture book.
Chana Stiefel is the award-winning author of more than 30 humorous and heartfelt books for children. Her nonfiction books include THE TOWER OF LIFE, LET LIBERTY RISE, and ANIMAL ZOMBIES & OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS. Chana’s funny fictional picture books include MENDEL’S HANUKKAH MESS UP, MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH, and DADDY DEPOT. She loves to visit schools and libraries to share her passion for reading and writing with children. You can learn more about her at her website.
TOWER OF LIFE: HOW YAFFA ELIACH REBUILT HER TOWN IN STORIES AND PHOTOGRAPHS is the incredible true story of one little girl who survives the Holocaust. But her story only starts there. This story is about what she does when she grows up: she collected photos from everyone in her village that she could track down and created The Tower of Life, an exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. This is a story you won’t want to miss.
Me: When did you first learn about Yaffa Eliach? What made you want to write this book?
Chana: I first learned about Yaffa Eliach when I read her obituary in The New York Times in 2016. I was struck by Yaffa’s ability to exhibit hope and resilience in the face of unbearable tragedy. Yaffa was a Holocaust survivor from a Polish town called Eishyshok. As a child, she loved to help out in her grandmother’s photography studio. When the Nazis arrived in 1941, Yaffa and her family escaped. She tucked some photos into her shoes, memories of the life they left behind. In just two days, 900 years of history were uprooted by the Nazis. Many years later, Yaffa made it her mission to restore humanity to the victims of the Holocaust. Traveling the world for 17 years, she rebuilt her town by collecting 6,000 photos and stories of nearly every man, woman, and child who had lived in Eishyshok. Using 1,500 of those photographs, she created the Tower of Faces, a permanent exhibit soaring three stories high at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
On a personal level, I identified with Yaffa’s story because of the tragic gaps in my own family tree; my great grandfather lost his parents and eight siblings, as well as their spouses and children, at the hands of the Nazis. And my in-laws both escaped Nazi Germany as children.
I felt an urgency to share Yaffa’s story because the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust are passing away. It has become our responsibility to bear witness and to share their testimony with the next generation, and to ensure that such atrocities never happen again.
Me: I absolutely agree! How long did it take from your first discovery of this story to its ultimate publication? Were there detours or roadblocks along the way?
Chana: It took six years from idea to publication. The biggest challenge for me was learning how to write about the Holocaust for children. I studied many other picture books and spoke with Holocaust educators. My book mainly focuses on the beautiful life in Eishyshok before the war and Yaffa’s journey to rebuild her beloved town. For the dark period, gorgeously illustrated by Susan Gal, I knew that my words had to be truthful without being traumatizing. Even while in hiding, Yaffa’s parents taught her how a glimmer of light can chase away the darkness. I used that lesson as my guiding light.
Me: I love that. Can you tell us a bit about your research process? How long did it take you to research all the different facts and tidbits that went into this story?
Chana: Yaffa documented her work in an 800-page, award-winning book called There Once Was a World. (That’s why the first line of my book is: “There once was a girl…”) I spent several months reading that book and getting to know Yaffa. I also visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. I read many articles and watched online interviews with Yaffa. By sheer coincidence (or maybe fate), Yaffa’s daughter, Prof. Smadar Rosensweig, visited the high school where I was working. She gave me permission to write her mother’s story and she helped with fact checking and filling in important details.
Me: Wow! That’s incredible. It’s amazing to me to see what’s important to children. Yaffa kept photographs to remember people and good times when she was only a child on the run from unspeakable horror. Why do you want young readers to know about her? Why is telling her story important to you?
Chana: Yaffa’s mission was to restore humanity to the victims of the Holocaust. She said that when people from all backgrounds visit the Tower of Faces at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, they see themselves in the photographs. Instead of seeing the dehumanized prisoners of the Nazi regime, they see that the victims were people who laughed, played, worked, celebrated, and lived their lives, just like we do.
When I started writing this book, I never could have imagined the horrible wave of hate crimes spreading across America and around the world. My hope is that ALL children will see themselves in Yaffa’s photographs, develop empathy and respect, and help build a better, kinder, safer world.
Me: Your story is beautifully written, complete with a circular text. Yaffa’s story could have been a whole life biography, but you chose to focus on why she thought those photos were important and how that decision ultimately went into the Tower of Life. Was that an intimidating choice? Did you realize you’d need a bigger page count to accomplish this?
Chana: Yaffa was a strong, trail-blazing woman with many accomplishments in her life. As a survivor and historian, she established the pioneering Center for Holocaust Studies, Documentation, and Research, which is now part of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Her first-person interviews with Holocaust survivors inspired Steven Spielberg to create the Shoah Foundation, which has archived 55,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors. However, Yaffa’s towering accomplishment, the one that I hope will inspire children, is the Tower of Life, a central exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. By focusing on this aspect of her life, I hope to show children how they too can overcome tremendous hardship, find light, and accomplish big things. Readers who want a broader picture of Yaffa’s life can learn more in the backmatter. (Regarding the page count, our editor Dianne Hess generously gave us 40 pages to tell our story and we are grateful. It allowed for the right pacing.)
Me: The page count is generous, but your story fits perfectly. Susan Gal’s illustrations in this book are also quite stunning! That spread of Yaffa building the town photograph by photograph blew me away. And I absolutely adore the real photo of Yaffa making silly faces with the chickens. Was the choice to use that photo in the book something you helped to make or was that all Susan’s idea? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Chana: I included some art notes with the hopes that some photographs would be used in the book. I even pasted some photographs into the original manuscript. Susan Gal’s artwork blew me away. Her stunning color palette and beautiful patterns breathed new life into Eishyshok. We tend to think of World War II and the old towns of Europe as black, white, and gray because of the black and white photography of that time period, and also because it was a very dark time in history. What Yaffa—and now Susan—showed us is that life before the war was filled with beauty. Every page is a gem. The spread in which Yaffa brings her town back to life through photographs took my breath away.
Me: I’m drawn to stories of WWII over and over again. The fabric of darkness that covered the world at that time can be overwhelming, and yet, there are always pinpricks of light that manage to shine through. Yaffa Eliach was a woman whose light shown. She decided to give back the lost dignity and humanity. She rebuilt a town from memories. What impact do you want to make on the world, like she did?
Chana: Wow, what a question. I don’t think I’m prepared quite yet to think of my legacy. In many ways, I’m just getting started. Yaffa is truly an inspiration. And her hard work and tenacity encourage me to continue on my own journey. I’m grateful for the support of my family and my community. It’s such a privilege to be able to share stories and books with children. I hope that I have many more books in me. You never know which book may change a child’s life.
That is so true. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Chana.
Dear readers, this book was released earlier this month. If you haven’t already had a chance to read it, I highly recommend tracking it down. This is a gorgeous biography (in text and illustration) that will capture your heart. Don’t miss it!