University bestows honorary degree on Yaffa Eliach

Holocaust survivor, author and professor presented talk at undergraduate commencement | May 4, 2004

On Saturday, May 15, the University celebrated the 2004 commencement exercises for graduate and undergraduate students. During commencement, the University traditionally presents citations, awards and honorary degrees to notable individuals who have made certain contributions to Xavier or the greater society. One of those being honored this year was Yaffa Eliach, who was presented the degree of Doctor of Humanities, honoris causa.

As a child in Lithuania, Yaffa Eliach escaped death in the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of more than 200 members of her family, by hiding in the forest and later in caves that belonged to Polish friends of her family. As World War II came to an end, she returned home, only to witness the brutal murders of her mother and her baby brother. These experiences of unspeakable violence and hatred might naturally elicit feelings of revenge, anger and despair. Yaffa Eliach, however, molded these experiences into an unwavering, lifelong commitment to community, peace and hope.

As professor of Jewish history and literature at Brooklyn College, Eliach taught others about the Holocaust and the way of life it destroyed. In 1982, she published "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust," the only major collection of Hasidic tales and anecdotes to have been compiled from the Holocaust experience. These tales engage central questions concerning good and evil, destruction and redemption, faith and loss of faith in God and others.

In "There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok," Eliach describes the rich history of the village of her youth. In addition to these and other publications, Eliach founded America's first Center for Holocaust Studies, served on President Jimmy Carter's Holocaust Commission and created the "Tower of Life," a permanent photographic exhibit spanning three floors of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. For her tireless efforts to preserve the memory of Jewish life in Europe and to promote unity among peoples, she was named Woman of the Year by CBS in 1995. She served as the Edward B. Brueggeman, S.J., chair in ecumenical and interreligious studies at Xavier in 2003.

Now a professor emerita, Eliach continues with unabated energy to document through stories and photographs the rich history of Jewish life in Europe. With the same vigor, she continues to promote and to celebrate the "togetherness" of people of different faiths and backgrounds. Her two latest projects embody this dual commitment: a living history museum in Israel that recreates Jewish life in the Diaspora by building a shtetl–a Jewish town common in eastern Europe prior to World War II–and an exhibit that chronicles Pope John Paul II's longstanding relationship with the Jewish people.

In recognition of her efforts and achievements, and for embodying so gracefully the University’s own best ideals, Xavier University was proud to present Yaffa Eliach with the degree of Doctor of Humanities, honoris causa.