Emi­ly Schnei­der spoke with Chana Stiefel and Susan Gal, author and illus­tra­tor of The Tow­er of Life: How Yaf­fa Eli­ach Rebuilt Her Town in Sto­ries and Pho­tographsTheir new pic­ture book biog­ra­phy of a pio­neer­ing Holo­caust schol­ar rais­es many issues, includ­ing the impor­tance of depict­ing the Holo­caust in children’s lit­er­a­ture and the rel­e­vance of their book to both Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity and uni­ver­sal human rights.

Emi­ly Schnei­der: I’m hon­ored to be speak­ing with you about The Tow­er of Life, which is an unusu­al addi­tion to Holo­caust-themed pic­ture books. Chana, I’m assum­ing that you did­n’t begin by say­ing, I’m going to write a book about the Holo­caust for chil­dren,” even though that would be a wor­thy goal. But you must have had a rea­son for becom­ing inter­est­ed in writ­ing about Yaf­fa Eli­ach in this way. After all, many Jew­ish adults may not have heard of her. How did you come up with the idea of writ­ing about a schol­ar who ded­i­cat­ed her life to chron­i­cling Eishyshok, her family’s shtetl?

Chana Stiefel: I am a chil­dren’s book author, and I’ve been writ­ing for about thir­ty years now. In the begin­ning, I wrote about sci­ence and health; that’s where my back­ground is. But in the last few years, I’ve decid­ed to write Jew­ish books. I did not set out to write a Holo­caust book. Then, in 2016, I opened up the New York Times and found Yaf­fa Eli­ach’s obit­u­ary. I was riv­et­ed. Some­thing drew me to her, and I was inspired by her resilience and hope after all the tragedy that she expe­ri­enced. She was able to go on with her life and she became a pro­fes­sor of Holo­caust Stud­ies. When she was asked to build an exhib­it for the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, she did­n’t want to focus on death and dying and destruc­tion. She remem­bered her beau­ti­ful shtetl, her town, and she want­ed to rebuild it. There’s also a per­son­al aspect; my fam­i­ly expe­ri­enced tremen­dous loss in the Shoah, as did many oth­er fam­i­lies. Read­ing Yaf­fa’s obit­u­ary real­ly brought home the mes­sage that Holo­caust sur­vivors are dying, and it’s our respon­si­bil­i­ty now to bear wit­ness and share their lega­cy with the next generation.

ES: Yes, when­ev­er there is a dis­cus­sion about whether too many Jew­ish-themed children’s books focus on the Holo­caust, this issue of gen­er­a­tional respon­si­bil­i­ty comes up. Your con­nec­tion to Yaffa’s fam­i­ly made that per­son­al as well.

CS: I’m sure you’re famil­iar with the word bash­ert, right?

ES: Yes, when some­thing is meant to be.

CS: There was a lot that was bash­ert for this book. When I first men­tioned to my chil­dren that I was think­ing of writ­ing a book about Yaf­fa Eli­ach, it turned out that both my daugh­ter and son knew her grand­chil­dren. At that time, I was the direc­tor of pub­lic rela­tions at a Jew­ish high school for girls called Ma’ayan­ot in Tea­neck, New Jer­sey. Smadar Rosensweig, who is Yaf­fa’s daugh­ter and a pro­fes­sor of Bible Stud­ies at Stern Col­lege, came to speak. We met and imme­di­ate­ly con­nect­ed over this project. She was instru­men­tal in fact-check­ing and pro­vid­ing back­ground infor­ma­tion. It worked out beautifully.

ES: Susan, your pic­tures are stun­ning. How did this project come across your desk?

SG: My agent called me up and said that there was a book and it was a real­ly good one.” When the man­u­script arrived, it just grabbed me. There was a pho­to of Yaf­fa as a lit­tle girl feed­ing chick­ens. And I didn’t have to read any more. I said, I’m in.” There was some­thing about that lit­tle girl that I just con­nect­ed with. I began to have a real pas­sion for her sto­ry. Every book I do, I put every­thing I have into it. But this book is real­ly spe­cial to me.

I had this vision in my head, which became a scene in the book, of gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies vis­it­ing the ceme­tery and telling sto­ries about who was buried there.

ES: It’s inter­est­ing that you were instant­ly drawn to that pho­to of Yaf­fa. Could you explain why you inte­grat­ed pho­tos and images based on pho­tos into your artwork?

SG: The Holo­caust Muse­um has won­der­ful archives, so I start­ed gath­er­ing pic­tures. At first, I only stud­ied the pho­tos of the peo­ple that were from Eishyshok. I was­n’t read­ing what had hap­pened to them or who they were. I just want­ed to see the imagery. It was real­ly impor­tant for me as an illus­tra­tor to get the sense of place right, because I had to hon­or Yaf­fa’s sto­ry, where she came from. As I start­ed look­ing for pic­tures from World War II more broad­ly, I found images of Nazis that remind­ed me of pho­tos of mod­ern-day Nazis, as in Char­lottesville, and I felt a real sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty. I uncov­ered more infor­ma­tion on Holo­caust deniers and became angry. I thought, this book has to come to light. When I said to my agent, Do you under­stand that I’m not Jew­ish? Is that okay?” she assured me it would not matter.

ES: Susan, thank you for men­tion­ing your back­ground. It adds to our dis­cus­sion, because you clear­ly approached the book with great empa­thy, and that is not exclu­sive to Jew­ish authors and artists writ­ing about this sub­ject. One way you con­vey feel­ing in your pic­tures is through col­or. As just one exam­ple, some of the vio­lence is not shown explic­it­ly, but rather is demon­strat­ed through the pre­dom­i­nant use of reds and blacks.

SG: Yes, when I drew the scenes of destruc­tion in the town, I want­ed to hon­or what hap­pened but also make it a lit­tle bit abstract. Often, it’s what you don’t see that can be most fright­en­ing. There are bits and pieces, and your brain fills in the rest. I was actu­al­ly inspired by a paint­ing called Alaba­ma,” by Nor­man Lewis, from 1960. He was an abstract expres­sion­ist, and his paint­ing is of a Klan ral­ly but doesn’t explic­it­ly show vio­lence. As I was draw­ing the Nazis, I looked at the black-and-white images, and I blurred my eyes to get rid of any fea­tures. I want­ed to keep them as dark sil­hou­ettes. The Nazis did­n’t deserve to be shown with fea­tures, so they are featureless.

ES: As I look at the pic­tures and lis­ten to Susan’s com­ments, I’m remind­ed of how per­fect­ly the text and pic­tures work togeth­er in the book. Chana has had to truth­ful­ly address death and destruc­tion, choos­ing to use cer­tain words and avoid oth­ers; Susan has had to make those same choic­es in her images. Chana, at one point you use the word uproot­ed” rather than destroyed.” When you’re writ­ing about the Holo­caust for younger chil­dren, it’s a dif­fi­cult bal­ance. You have to be hon­est about the hor­rors, but also allow a sense of awe, sad­ness, and pride in peo­ple like Yaffa.

CS: Yes, in a chil­dren’s pic­ture book every word has to be care­ful­ly cho­sen. I had this vision in my head, which became a scene in the book, of gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies vis­it­ing the ceme­tery and telling sto­ries about who was buried there. I was think­ing about the roots of trees and how there are many com­par­isons of Judaism to a tree of life. There was com­mu­ni­ty in Eishyshok and through­out Europe for 900 years — until the Nazis came, and then it was uproot­ed. I was hop­ing that Susan would find a way to show that uproot­ed­ness, and she cer­tain­ly did. One theme in the book is how the com­pos­ite of light and life cap­tured in time is in essence a pho­to­graph. Yaffa’s grand­moth­er was the town pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Yaffa’s par­ents taught her how a glim­mer of light can chase away dark­ness. On the cave wall, when Yaf­fa is hid­ing with her fam­i­ly, there are Hebrew words in my hand­writ­ing: tik­vah, or hope, ohr, mean­ing light, chay­im, for life, and shalom, peace.

ES: Susan, anoth­er remark­able scene is the two-page spread where peo­ple from the vil­lage stand behind sim­u­lat­ed doc­u­men­tary pho­tos. It’s inven­tive, some­what humor­ous, and looks lov­ing­ly at the past with­out too much nos­tal­gia. How did you come up with this idea?

SG: I had all these lay­ers of art­work on my com­put­er, and as I start­ed to ren­der the peo­ple, I decid­ed that I want­ed them to be look­ing at the read­er, to be val­i­dat­ed, to say that they exist­ed. Of course, they all were mur­dered. But I thought, the pic­tures become the per­son. The pic­tures come to life. They are look­ing out at you.

ES: You both made the point so elo­quent­ly about the urgency of teach­ing chil­dren about the Holo­caust. The peo­ple in the pho­tographs, and oth­ers like them, are near­ly gone. What would you like read­ers to take away from this book?

SG: I grew up learn­ing about the Holo­caust in ele­men­tary school. Someone’s grand­moth­er came to our class; she had been in one of the camps. She had a tat­too on her arm. We saw pic­tures of peo­ple as stacks of bod­ies. It was some­thing that hap­pened a long time ago. But these peo­ple also had vibrant, won­der­ful, rich lives, which I think is impor­tant. That’s a con­nec­tion that we can make to the present day. I just feel real­ly blessed to be the illus­tra­tor of this book.

CS: If you’ve ever been to the US Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, you’ve prob­a­bly noticed that not every­one who vis­its there is Jew­ish. As a Jew, I find it hope­ful that peo­ple want to learn this his­to­ry. You can­not leave there with­out feel­ing moved or changed. Yaf­fa said that when peo­ple look at these pho­tographs in her exhib­it, they see them­selves. We need to teach chil­dren his­to­ry and we need to devel­op empa­thy. We’re not the same, but we’re all human. We def­i­nite­ly need books about Jew­ish joy and Jew­ish life and the Jew­ish diver­si­ty, but we can­not for­get our history.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.