Daughter of Holocaust survivors shines light on family’s dark secrets

Anna Salton Eisen has written a memoir, Pillar of Salt: A Daughter’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust, about growing up with parents who are survivors.

 HENRY AND Anna Salzman. (photo credit: Salton Eisen private collection)
HENRY AND Anna Salzman.
(photo credit: Salton Eisen private collection)

Growing up in Potomac, Maryland, with two older brothers, Anna Salton Eisen always felt there was something different about her family. Underneath a palpable grief she couldn’t quite pinpoint were questions she hid because they were too forbidden to ask. 

“My parents were very loving, close people, very caring, but it was just always obvious that they had something in their past that was tragic, that was painful. There was anguish that I saw in my father’s eyes,” Eisen revealed last week.

Eisen, therapist and founding member of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, site of the recent hostage standoff, has written a memoir, Pillar of Salt: A Daughter’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust, about growing up with parents who are survivors. It will be released two days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 26. 

She describes her home life as being “almost like having amnesia…. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone, unless you’re in the witness protection program, who walks around saying, ‘We can’t talk about the past, we’ve changed our names, we can’t tell you what happened, you have virtually no relatives.’” 

Eisen remembers accidentally discovering a terrifying piece of her father’s past when she was eight years old and found two watercolor paintings hidden in a drawer. One vividly depicted a man looking dazed and horrified, kneeling beside the edge of a pit filled with Jewish prisoners with bloodied faces. He wore a Star of David armband and a uniformed officer pointed a gun directly at his head. The other painting showed the mayhem and carnage of Nazis destroying the Rzeszów Ghetto

 GEORGE SALTON in front of his parents’ house. (credit: Salton Eisen private collection) GEORGE SALTON in front of his parents’ house. (credit: Salton Eisen private collection)

They were both signed by Eisen’s father and dated 1946, when he was at the Neustadt displaced persons camp in Lübeck, Germany. Eisen did not ask her father about the paintings; she just silently put them back into the drawer, burying his grief, that she now carried, along with them. 

All of the fears and emotions Eisen tried to hide awakened at night, in her dreams. Sometimes she was terrorized as raging Nazi soldiers invaded her home; other times, she was a hero and savior, firing off rounds of ammunition from a machine gun, killing off the killers who had stolen her parents’ pasts. 

In high school, Eisen began sneaking off to the library to read about the Holocaust.

“I remember that I stole a book from the library…. I thought, ‘I’m not even allowed to check this out.’ I thought someone would come after me. I can’t remember a lot about the book, but the pieces were starting to come together.” 

When Eisen attended American University in 1977, she invited her father, George Salton, to be a guest speaker at her history class. It was the first time she heard his story. His parents were killed in gas chambers at Belzec, an extermination camp that was built to murder all Polish Jews as part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” His brother survived the war, but was fatally shot by Polish civilians while searching for a child who had been left in the care of a Polish family during the Holocaust. 

Salton was sent to 10 concentration camps in Poland, Germany and France from 1942-1945, where he was forced to work in salt mines and had to dig up graves and bring dead bodies to the crematorium. He wore a striped prison uniform and walked in rags, instead of shoes, which he trekked in through icy winters. The friendships he made with fellow prisoners helped him to survive. His closest companion, Emil, was with him at all 10 camps, and he later introduced Eisen’s father to her mother, Ruth.

TODAY, RUTH is 100 years old. When the Nazis invaded Poland, she was visiting her aunt in Warsaw. She remembers, “I got on a train to go back to my town and the Nazis came and asked all the Jews to get off the train. A Christian-Polish railroad worker took me by the hand and led me to an apartment where Jews were hiding. I stayed only a few weeks before I left on foot to go back to my town. It was a time of great fear and uncertainty.” When she returned to her hometown of Komarów, all of the Jews were gone. 

A kind supervisor at a local hospital who Ruth knew admitted her to the hospital and told her to pretend she was sick while he looked for her family. Late one night, her mother came to her and they escaped to a Russian-occupied town across the border, where she was reunited with her brother and two sisters.

Soon, Russian officers came and deported them to a remote labor camp in Siberia. She describes, “We had to do hard labor, including cutting down trees and building our own barracks to live in. We had little food, no freedom and felt alone and afraid as we had run from our country, only to become prisoners of the Russians.”

When the war ended, Ruth became part of the Bricha, an underground movement that helped to transport to Israel hundreds of Jewish orphans who were hidden in Christian homes and convents.

“The work was hard and dangerous but I didn’t think about that, only the mission to find the children and take them out of the countries where their parents had been murdered,” she explains. 

After college, Eisen got married, had two children and moved to a small Bible Belt town in Texas. Feeling isolated, she reconnected with her Jewish history by working as a docent at the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies. She also conducted interviews with survivors for the USC Shoah Foundation. Later, she would become a therapist with an interest in trauma and open a synagogue.

In May 1998, Eisen, her parents and her brothers traveled throughout Europe together to relive their history alongside them. Some things were nothing like they expected. Antique dealers hid behind closed shutters in Rzeszów, her father’s hometown, as they illegally sold pieces of Jewish tradition, like tarnished kiddush cups, because they were “in.” A restaurant in Kraków called Ariel, which specialized in Jewish food, had non-Jewish musical acts of men dressed up as Orthodox Jews, dancing to klezmer music. Figurines of men with beards, black top hats and tallitot were displayed in the background. 

“I think that they don’t understand how it makes us feel,” Eisen states, “It’s clueless. We really expected, we’re going to go to a beautiful place, there’s Jewish food, we’re going to meet other travelers, and it wasn’t like that. It was just kitschy, like Disney World.” 

The cover of Pillar of Salt is a shadowy depiction of Eisen’s father holding her hand, like he always did. This time, she held onto her father’s hand to hold him up as they said the mourner’s kaddish at the memorial at Belzec, where 600,000 Jews were murdered in 11 months. They stared in silence at the desperate scratches inside the walls of the boxcar her grandparents rode in on the way to their deaths. Eisen comments, “I didn’t blame God for the Holocaust. I blamed the humans who turned their back on God when they chose evil over goodness.”

Information about the book can be found at https://annasaltoneisen.com/