We’re honored to share a special guest interview on our podcast The Teacher’s Lounge with a second generation Holocaust survivor, Anna Salton Eisen. Both of Anna’s parents survived the Holocaust as Jews living in Poland at the time of World War II, and then immigrated to the United States and lived as US citizens afterward, and raised a family, living out what many would call the American dream with little mention of their Holocaust experiences, even to their three children.
Anna has devoted much of her life to exploring her parents’ story and helping them bring those stories to light by way of books, museum exhibits, personal appearances, contributions to documentaries, and addressing Jewish groups and congregations and other family members of survivors and liberators alike.
So now, even though her parents have both passed on, and perhaps because of that, Anna is as devoted as ever to share their stories of the Holocaust with new generations who need a frame of reference for this dark period in world history.
Michael Arnold: Anna, I’d like to highlight the living resource that you are to educators in our network. For that reason, it’s a pleasure to have you join us today. Welcome.
Anna Salton Eisen: Thank you. I’m very excited to be here and share my story and share my parents’ story.
Michael Arnold: We have an event planned when you will share more about the resources that you’ve put together, and I’ll invite our listeners to check out the Events Page on curriculumtrack.com. So we’re not going to dig too much into the books that you’ve written and so forth, although we will reference those a little bit. I want to focus on your story and why it is that you do what you do.
Anna Salton Eisen: Absolutely.
Michael Arnold: You’ve lived some experiences that many of us have just tried to understand and you’ve tried to learn the lessons of the Holocaust as a child of survivors, with both of your parents surviving that period of history. It’s really just outside of our own understanding for most of us to try to grasp that. But you make yourself and the books, the videos, and the other resources that you’ve put together, available to educators and clubs and even congregations and news organizations in a variety of ways so that people can learn more. Let’s start there. Where would people go to learn more about who you are and what you do? Share with us your website as a resource.
Anna Salton Eisen: Sure. So my website is annasaltaneisen.com and as you said, I share my story as a resource. I’ve been going and speaking at synagogues, at churches, to schools. I’m doing a lot of educator training, also corporate work, and I’m excited that I’ve been invited to speak at some large military bases– and actually the National Convention of the 82nd Airborne, which was the American unit that liberated my father from his 10th and final concentration camp.
Why You Do What You Do
Michael Arnold: Two questions come to mind right away. First of all, I just want to set the stage. Why do you do what you do? What’s your elevator pitch, the reason that you devote your time and your energy to sharing these stories and making them available? And then secondly, what value do you hope that it brings to our society?
Anna Salton Eisen: Well, I think that the Holocaust is a unique and extremely important part of world history. I think that the lessons are many and when I was growing up, I didn’t know anything about my parents. I didn’t know about their background. I didn’t know their real names. I didn’t really know what it meant that they were Holocaust survivors.
So, I really had no family history, no real identity. And when I would ask my father questions about why we had no relatives, he would just say, “It’s a sad story. Let’s talk about something else.” And so as a child, I learned to take these cues and keep the silence. But I heard some words like box cars and camps, and that just compelled me to start a search on my own through the middle school library in high school.
I began to ask more questions that culminated when I confronted my father as a young adult and traveled with him back to Poland. I feel that I have a responsibility, especially now that my parents have passed, to keep this story alive and share it with people because their individual stories are not in any history books. That’s why I recorded it because so few from his town, from his labor group survived.
Michael Arnold: Share with us just in a nutshell, because we could spend a long time here and you’ve written books about it, but how would you give us an overview of both of your parents’ life stories? They both grew up in Poland, but didn’t know each other until they were in the United States. Is that correct?
Anna Salton Eisen: Correct. My father was living in a small Polish town. His father was a lawyer. He had one brother. His mother was a homemaker. And after September, 1939 with the Nazi invasion, they lived under Occupation, which was very difficult with increasing restrictions and anti-Semitism. And after two years, they were relocated to the ghetto.
Everyone in the ghetto, except for a group of about 500 young men, including my father, were put on box cars and all sent to the Belzec extermination camp where they were all gassed and murdered, and thus began my father’s odyssey through 10 concentration camps with this group in Germany, Poland, and France, including being in a secret tunnel the Nazis had in France. Then on May 2nd, 1945, he was liberated by the Americans. And after two years of waiting to find a relative in America, he came to the United States and began his life here, including serving in the US Army, and continuing his education.
My mother was from a small Polish town in Eastern Poland, and in the summer of 1939, she was visiting an aunt in Warsaw. So she was there when Warsaw was bombed and stayed there. She was blonde and was on the non-Jewish part of town where she could bring messages to the Jewish part. Once the Nazis started building the 10-foot wall around this terrible ghetto, she went into hiding for a while. She later went east and was sent to Siberia.
Then after the war, she joined a group called the Bricha, which means escape. It was her mission to go and look for those children that had been hidden, including those by Irena Sendler, a famous Polish Catholic heroine who saved almost 2,500 Jewish children. My mother had the job to go and look for these orphans, bring them back, and then help to smuggle them across the borders from Poland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, mostly to Germany, where they would try and get on ships to go to Israel.
Michael Arnold: So you’ve written a book about your father’s experiences. I don’t know if you have a book planned about your mother’s experiences, but they both are heroic in their own ways and yet extremely different. Your father survived 10 concentration camps mostly because his group kept moving away from the Allies, right? Is that one of the reasons he moved as much as he did?
Anna Salton Eisen: Yes, the Nazis moved them around to escape from the Allies with the factory equipment, but also he was young and he was with a group of friends, people he met in the camp and they supported each other. If they only had one piece of bread, then they would share it. If one of them was discouraged, they would give each other encouragement and hope, and they would lean on each other during roll call when they stood for hours. It was very important to have others that he could rely on, as well as his faith and a lot of luck, because the majority of people, as we know, did not survive. Even of his group of 450 at the end of the war maybe only 25 were still alive.
Michael Arnold: That’s astounding. The experience that he shares we’ll dig into a little bit more, but what impresses me as we return to your story is that, while you were growing up, your parents, I think quite honorably, tried to avoid that darkness and, it seems to me, tried to provide a “normal life” for their children. Yet the trauma still seeped into your family history, didn’t it?
Anna Salton Eisen: Yeah, my parents, and my father especially, were grieving. He had a picture of his parents hidden in his sock drawer. I think that one time he said, “If I begin to talk about them and even the good memories, it will lead me down a path toward times of great destruction and sorrow and pain.”
And so, just like a lot of American soldiers, they were urged to come back, make peace with the past, and move on. So, I think that whole generation, at least in America, did not talk about it. I have met many children of American soldiers who said that their fathers also didn’t talk about it. They said that it changed them and that it was just horrific, you know, and here’s the lesson of the worst of mankind. Hopefully it will inspire us to behave as the best of mankind and really love each other and take care of each other in the ways that I think life is intended to be.
How It All Came to the Surface
Michael Arnold: Yeah, and through that you started to recognize that there were parts of the story you weren’t hearing, relatives you weren’t hearing mentioned, family names and so forth. So you started out on your own journey, to find out that story and to try to bring peace to your parents through understanding their story. You write about this in your book, Pillar of Salt. Would you share that portion from the prologue where you explain how this all came to the surface eventually? To set the scene, I think you’re married and had small children, but you had a chance to return to visit your parents without your husband and children.
Anna Salton Eisen: Yes, I’d actually organized a conference of children of survivors with someone from New York and California, and we came together and some of them were starting to make trips or hire genealogists and I was quite excited. I thought my father would want this, that I was interested and that maybe we could find some answers or some documents.
After we finished lunch, my mother began clearing the dishes and my father asked me to go outside with him just because it was such a beautiful day. As we headed towards the door, I began telling him about a Jewish genealogist that I had heard about at the conference. For a few thousand dollars, this person would travel to my father’s ancestral home in Poland and spend several days tracing and documenting our family roots.They would make us a videotape of how the town looks today and bring us photocopies of any family documents including birth, marriage, and death certificates that might remain in the town’s municipal archives.
My father stopped me at the doorway and reacted with a surprising burst of anger. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Why would you waste your money on some silly pieces of paper that mean nothing? Everyone is dead and everything is gone, and there’s nothing you can do to bring anyone or anything back. Why would we care about a town that turned on us and ran us out into the hands of the Nazis?”
“Still,” I said, “I could have something with our family’s name on it. Something to show that those people existed.”
He suddenly looked very hurt and upset. He took a deep breath before he spoke. “I am Adam,” he said in a voice that shook like thunder. “Nothing came before me. Everything and everyone is gone, and it all starts over with me.”
I felt my own pain and anger well up and rise from inside me. “You’re not Adam!” I shouted back. “You had a family. Just because you refused to speak of them doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. All I know about your mother, my grandmother that you named me after, is that she died in the gas chamber and that isn’t enough.”
For a moment we stood speechless, looking at each other with tears in our eyes. For the first time I wasn’t just his little girl. I was an adult standing there with my father trying to find out the truth of his past, and suddenly I realized that his past was also my own. I went into the den and came back with a yellow legal pad and a pen. “Tell it to me,” I said. “I don’t know anything. Tell me the names of the people in your family. Tell me the names of aunts and uncles and cousins who all disappeared. Tell me the names of the towns you lived in and the names of the people you knew. Tell me the names of the 10 concentration camps you were in and what happened in each one. Tell me about my grandparents, not just how they died, but how they lived. Tell me how it began and how it ended. For God’s sake, Daddy, I need to know. Tell me what they did to you.” And so my journey began.
Michael Arnold: And that’s the powerful prologue to your book, A Pillar of Salt: A Daughter’s Life In the Shadow of the Holocaust. And from that experience, from that journey, you also produced or helped your father write his story, The 23rd Psalm Holocaust memoir. Tell me why he chose that name for his book, The 23rd Psalm.
Anna Salton Eisen: There were always two things that I felt that my father said with great authenticity. One is during the Passover Seder when we read about the Jews in exile during the time of Moses, when they would say, “Once we were slaves and now we are free men,” because indeed he had been a slave. And the other was the 23rd Psalm because it was also something that, when he would read in a worship service, he would begin to cry. I knew that these words meant so much to him because, indeed, he had been in the shadow of death. He had been at a table among his enemies. He had kept his faith. At times, it was tested and he questioned why his parents, who were such good people, had been murdered. I think throughout his life that Psalm meant a lot to him, and he felt that David, who wrote it, must have also been through some terrible things to be able to express those feelings and those thoughts. So, to him it was a comfort that he felt understood and connected, but it also reaffirmed his faith and gave him hope.
Michael Arnold: Powerful. How old was he when the war broke out?
Anna Salton Eisen: So when the war broke out, he had just completed the fifth grade. He hadn’t yet started the sixth grade, and so they lived in Occupation from that time. When he was about 12, 13, 14, he went to the ghetto, and he wasn’t in the ghetto very long, maybe just about a month, before everyone was sent away. He became a prisoner of the first concentration camp, which was built right there at the ghetto from the age of 14 to 17. So yes, during those years, he was indeed an orphan and living in these most horrific circumstances.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of this interview, or feel free to go to The Teacher’s Lounge to listen to the entire interview.