Stiefel, Chana. The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs. Illustr. by Susan Gal. Scholastic Press, 2022.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What motivated you to write this story?
Chana Stiefel (CS): I first learned about Yaffa Eliach when I read her obituary in the New York Times in November 2016. I was amazed by her resilience and hope in the face of unbearable tragedy. In creating the Tower of Life at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), Yaffa made it her mission to restore humanity to the victims of the Holocaust—to focus on the beautiful lives they lived, ensure that they are not forgotten, and most importantly to say, “Never again!” Sadly, the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust are passing away, and I felt a strong responsibility to share Yaffa’s story with the next generation.
TWM: How did you conduct your research?
CS: I started by reading Yaffa’s book, There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok (Little, Brown and Company, 1998). (The title of her book is why I chose the first line in my picture book to be: “There once was a girl…”) In this 800-page, monumental work, Yaffa traces the history of her town, its traditions, and the lives of 3,500 Jews who lived there before the Nazis invaded. More than 1,000 of the photos that Yaffa collected appear in the Tower of Life. I also read many articles, transcribed interviews with Yaffa from YouTube, and watched a PBS documentary, narrated by Ed Asner, whose father was born in Eishyshok. I spent a lot of time viewing Yaffa’s remarkable photo archives.
TWM: Did you need to get this narrative vetted by Yaffa’s family and/or the USHMM?
CS: When I started my research, I knew I wanted to get permission from Yaffa’s family to share her story, but I wasn’t sure how. At the time, I was working as Director of Public Relations at Ma’ayanot High School in Teaneck, NJ. Then something remarkable happened. Prof. Smadar Rosensweig, Yaffa’s daughter, was invited to speak to the students at my school on her mother’s first yahrzeit. It was truly “bashert” (“meant to be”). After Smadar spoke, I introduced myself and asked permission to write the book. We later met at her office at Stern College in New York City, and she gave me the go-ahead. Smadar also read many drafts of the book, filled in important details, and helped with photo acquisition.
My editor, Dianne Hess, and I also shared the book with staff at the USHMM on Zoom. They shared some exciting information on how the exhibit is being updated to include multimedia. A former librarian and archivist from the museum also fact checked the book.
TWM: What were the greatest challenges to writing this story? Satisfactions?
CS: The greatest challenge was writing about the Holocaust for children. It’s such a vast and tragic topic and it’s a tremendous challenge to try to bring it down to size for children—to be truthful without traumatizing them. I tried to make this terrible period of history more personal and relatable by telling one woman’s story of survival and triumph. I also tried to follow in Yaffa’s footsteps by focusing on lives that were lived. It was important to me to show children what life was like before the Holocaust. That the victims were people, children who played in the snow, swam in lakes, and helped out with their family businesses. Readers should be able to draw connections between the communities they live in today with the town of Eishyshok. Yaffa wanted people who visit her exhibit to see themselves in the photos–to develop empathy and speak out against hate. That’s the main underlying message that I try to convey in my book.
The greatest satisfaction was seeing how Susan Gal’s stunning illustrations brought this story to life. Every spread is a masterpiece filled with color, texture, and emotion. I am thrilled, but not at all surprised, that Susan’s illustrations have been chosen for the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show in New York City.
TWM: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m grateful to have three more picture books coming soon. Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up, co-written with my husband Larry Stiefel (a first for us!), illustrated by Daphna Awadish, comes out from Kalaniot on October 25th. Bravo, Avocado! Illustrated by Anna Sussbauer will be published by HarperCollins on March 28, 2023. And Let’s Fly, a PB autobiography, co-written with Barrington Irvington, the youngest and first Black pilot to fly solo around the world, illustrated by Shamar Knight-Justice, will be coming from Dial/PRH in 2024. I’m also working on a Jewish middle-grade novel based on my childhood and growing up with activists for Soviet Jewry in Miami in the 1970s.
TWM: Do you have an agent? If so, who?
CS: I am represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
For more about Chana Stiefel, please see her website.