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Twenty-Three New Scholars Join the Brooklyn College Faculty

Yaffa Eliach, Professor Emeritus, Remembers Pope John Paul II


Yaffa Eliach with Pope John Paul II last October .

Yaffa Eliach is a pioneering scholar in Holocaust studies and a professor emeritus of history and literature in the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, with areas of specialty in Eastern European history, Russian intellectual history, Holocaust studies, and Hasidism.  She is founder of the first Center for Holocaust Studies in the United States and also president and founder of the Shtetl Foundation, which is building of a full-size replica of a typical East-European shtetl in Rishon Le-Zion, Israel.

On how she came to know Pope John Paul II:  Thirty years ago I was working on my book, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, when I first learned of a Polish priest who refused to baptize Jewish children because he said it wasn’t right—these children should be allowed to remain Jewish. That Polish priest became Pope John Paul II.  I telephoned him, saying it was very urgent to confirm this story.  I told the [Vatican officials] I could speak to  the Pope in Polish.  And I did write about John Paul II  in my book; it’s on page 142.  I was in touch with him for many years.

On how she got an audience with the Pope:   For years I was so interested in the Pope’s relationship with Jews.  I had collected so many photos.  So while I was a visiting professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, I decided to put together an exhibit about this aspect of his life, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.”  In October 2004, I got to present the Pope with details about the exhibit, along with a box containing the music of Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky, a favorite of his, and an oil portrait.  He kissed my hand. He said to me, “I can speak because you are praying for me to the Jewish God.”  It was so magnificent for us.  It was also an important historical time because this was the first Pope break the chain of painful history between Catholics and Jews; he was the first to enter a synagogue in 2000 years; and he was the first Pope to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.  I liked him so much.  He was so outstanding.

On the Shtetl FoundationI started the foundation in 1999.  Our mission is to document and celebrate the rich and vibrant Jewish History in Europe before its destruction during the Holocaust with the building of a full-size replica of a typical East-European shtetl in Israel.  We must do all we can to remember and celebrate the lives of the millions of Jews of who were murdered during the Holocaust. Only through our ability to recreate their history and culture, in all its complexity and specificity, can we pass on the legacy of those lost generations.

“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” opened at Xavier University in May and then traveled to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., where it will remain through December.  Eliach plans to bring the exhibit to New York in 2006.