Anna Salton Eisen lived in a household filled with sadness. By all appearances, she should have enjoyed a typical childhood in her comfortable Upstate New York and Maryland homes, yet an unspoken despondency loomed over Eisen and her brothers. Their parents George and Ruth were both Polish Jews and had met and married in the United States after World War II. Yet neither spoke much about their past and the Salton children had no concept of what their parents had gone through during the Holocaust. In her memoir, written with her son Aaron, Eisen tells the story of uncovering her parents’ trauma in Pillar of Salt: A Daughter’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Mandel Vilar Press, 2022).
Eisen writes candidly about how children of Holocaust survivors also suffer, even when they seemingly have a stable life. While she experienced the same types of fears most children have at some point, whether it’s separation anxiety or a fear of dogs, something else hovered above her.
In all the years that I lived at home, I never knew my father to sleep through the night. I heard him go downstairs to read or just walk around in the middle of the night. My mother told me that it was just how he was since the war. It hurt me to think that the sadness beneath the surface of his smile broke through during the lonely hours of the night, when the memories he kept hidden during the day awakened. I worried about him and wondered how it must feel to carry so much pain. He never once complained of being tired or told us what kept him from a peaceful sleep. And we children never asked. We kept a pact with his silence and pretended that our feelings, worries, and questions didn’t exist.
As a child, Eisen found their home life especially depressing during holidays like Thanksgiving when her friends gathered with their large extended families while she dined with her parents and brothers as if it were any other day of the year. At the age of nine, she found a couple of watercolors by Lucjan Salzman that depicted murders at the hands of the Nazis. She knew this was the name her father, George Salton, went by before the war. As she stared at these paintings, she realized her father had witnessed the unthinkable when he was young.
Eisen moved to Texas as adult with her husband and worked at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. She later helped found a new synagogue in Colleyville, which unfortunately made the news earlier this year when an armed man took the rabbi and other congregants hostage.
In bits and pieces she learned that father George had lost his parents and brother in the Holocaust and her mother Ruth was able to escape Poland to Russia with her family at the age of 13, only to be sent by Russian soldiers to frigid Siberia with other Jews. They were forced to build their own barracks and barely subsisted on meagre rations. Her mother only survived WWII thanks to a kind non-Jewish Polish railroad worker who kept her from German soldiers. As for her father’s years during the war, sometimes he mentioned bits and pieces from his time at ten different concentration camps.
By the late 1990s, Eisen knew the only way to learn her father’s story and to give him closure was if the family could travel to Poland. But she was not sure her father would be up for it—even many Jews who were safe in the U.S. during the war years wouldn’t have visited Poland or Germany in the decades after WWII—but George surprised her by readily agreeing. It was time to revisit his past.
Eisen, her parents, and two brothers traveled to Poland in 1998 and it didn’t take long for the family to feel uncomfortable. In Krakow, they came across shops that sold stereotypical Jewish souvenirs. Eisen couldn’t figure out why these figurines were made and who would buy them.
Lined up on a shelf along the back wall was something we had not seen before: an entire row of wooden figurines made to resemble Jews. They stood about a foot tall and looked like replicas of religious Jews or rabbis. These pathetic caricatures were carved in the shapes of old, stooped-over men with long gruesome faces and big hooked noses. Each wore a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. Also for sale were tabletop knickknacks created in the image of the old anti-Semitic stereotype. Who would buy one of these things to keep in their homes? Were they meant to be funny? Had nothing changed in the past fifty years? This was a painful reminder of the history and legacy of this country and our purpose in returning.
The family also came across a strange Jewish-themed restaurant that played into these same stereotypes. The trip was not getting off to a good start. But as they traveled to the sites of the ten concentration camps where George was forced into hard labor, as well as the Belzec concentration camp where his family perished, the story of his survival slowly unraveled and he was finally able to mourn his parents and brother.
The last part of the book switches gears as Eisen relays the story of how she inspired her father to write a memoir about his Holocaust years and co-wrote it with him. The University of Wisconsin Press published George’s memoir, The 23rd Psalm: A Holocaust Memoir, twenty years ago and revised edition will be published later this year. George donated his paintings—the ones Eisen found as a child—to the United States Holocaust Museum. And just as Eisen had helped her father write his story, her son Aaron co-write Pillar of Salt and helped her come to terms with her unsettling childhood, discovering her parents’ stories through a trip back to the country of their birth.
Eisen is certainly not the first author to write a Holocaust memoir, but her story shows that there cannot be too many books about this tragic part of modern history. WWII ended almost 80 years ago and fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors are alive today. Their memories are especially crucial these days as Holocaust denial grows and antisemitism rises. And it’s just as important for children of survivors to know they aren’t alone in their experiences of living with the specter of the Holocaust. For all these reasons, Eisen’s book is an important addition to the literature.