We’re honored to share part two of a special guest interview on the The Teacher’s Lounge podcast with a second generation Holocaust survivor, Anna Salton Eisen. (In case you missed it, you can read part one here.) 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: What does your father’s story bring that a lot of stories of the Holocaust don’t bring? I think his perspective as a junior high and high school aged boy living through that experience is so powerful and inviting to the students who are also about that age when we teach that in junior high and high school. So I think that’s one thing that this story brings, but what else do you think is unique about your father’s story and perspective on the Holocaust?
Anna Salton Eisen: Well, as he would say, when he wrote, he tried to be in the moment, tried to write from the perspective of when he was 14, when he had to learn that when you lined up for soup, how to not be at the front or in the back, which might give you an empty cauldron or the water on top, and how to march in a group of fives and stand in the middle to avoid a beating. So he tried to be very much present in the moment and express what he felt and went through at that age. There’s no foreshadowing.
People who have read it have expressed that they felt that they were walking in his shoes. And, indeed, as you know, I went in search of people he was in the camps with, many who didn’t know their parents’ story, but whose parents’ names were in my father’s book. And for them it also gave them that immediacy that my father could somehow go back in his memory and share what he felt, what was in his heart, what his hopes and dreams were, and also his fears and his despair were going through this terrible ordeal.
Michael Arnold: I am in a men’s group, and we were talking the other day about friendship for adult men, asking the question, what does it look like? And immediately your father’s definition of a friend popped in my mind: A friend is someone you can trust not to take your shoes while you sleep.
What does it mean to be a friend when you’re in the middle of your own struggle to survive?
Anna Salton Eisen: I recall there was one scene where he is receiving a beating and he locks eyes with another young prisoner, a Christian who was a Norwegian. It was just that moment of connection that he was seen and understood, that encouraged him, and somehow it has to start with that: that we at least don’t look away, that we see other people, that we try and understand what they’re going through and that, if it matters to us and we make those connections, then it can really save another person’s life.
Michael Arnold: I was gripped, again, trying to see it through a student’s eyes, but also through my own life experiences, how your father described just what school looked like as a Jew in Poland pre-Occupation and how there were some misunderstandings and misconceptions about who he was and who his family was, and his dad had to go down and set the teacher straight one time.
That slowly progressed throughout the beginning of the Occupation beyond just being an outsider in the classroom to no longer being invited to go to school or to the synagogue, to the books being burned, to neighbors turning their back on your father and his family during their time of need. They weren’t even able to provide for themselves. During that time a few heroes popped up and stepped in and helped, but that was the rare occasion. That wasn’t the norm. I was sitting there as I was reading that, personalizing it, internalizing it, asking myself, what would I do? How would I react? I think that’s what’s so gripping about your father’s experience is that, as you said, it really does put you in the moment and helps you live through that experience.
Anna Salton Eisen: Well, that’s part of what I like to bring to the classroom, to the teachers and the students, is that this was something that got worse over time. We hear about the Nuremberg Laws, the restrictions that were first instituted in Germany, and then brought to Poland right away. There were, of course, such things like the Jews couldn’t have civil service jobs. They couldn’t be treated by non-Jewish doctors, and Jewish children couldn’t go to school. If Jews walked on the sidewalk and a German approached, they had to step off and take off their cap. But there were also such things like the Jews couldn’t have radios. They couldn’t have typewriters. They couldn’t have over a certain amount of money. They couldn’t have pets. This whole process of dehumanization occurs with this taking away of all these rights. I will say that yes, my father was sent home from school, but even before that in the 1930s in Poland at University of Warsaw, the students had their student identity papers marked that they were not Arian and they were forced to sit on separate benches called Ghetto Benches for Jews.
So, there had been this undercurrent of anti-Semitism, but it was not until the Nazis came in that it was systematic and government-sponsored. Then they were identified, persecuted, segregated, isolated, and then moved into the ghettos which, as they became overpopulated and there was a lot of illness, then the Nazis were in the position to come up with their final solution, which was to empty the ghettos and kill all these millions of people, including more than one and a half million children.
Journey Back to Poland
Michael Arnold: You share in your story, The Pillar of Salt, how you journeyed back to Poland and some of those scenes with your father all these years later. People were profiting off of relics from the Holocaust and some of the mischaracterizations of the Jews and their practices and their customs. It wasn’t a joyous home-going for your father to go back and revisit that territory all those years later.
Anna Salton Eisen: No, and this is why to me, it’s so important to share the history because it’s so rich and personal. After the war, there were these displaced person camps that were set up mostly in Germany and Austria, run by the Allies, the Americans and the British, and, especially the Americans.
Eisenhower came to Warsaw, Poland and declared all the American Zone liberation camps would be a haven for Jews. But in Poland it was not safe for Jews to go back to their homes. There was still violence. There was a famous Pogrom, which is a night of violence, in a town called Kristallnacht, where there were only 500 Jews. And in one night there were great beatings and violence and many of them were killed. From that big turning point, Jews started to flee Poland. There was still a lot of anti-Semitism. People had moved into my father’s house. They were eating off their dishes, sleeping in their beds.
So when we returned to Poland and went back to these places and went back to his home, we were the first Jews to return to his town. Many said, “Oh, there was never a synagogue here. There were never Jews there.” And I remember once we went to the death camp where his parents had died and they were actually excavating the camp. The archeologist in front of it told me that he had asked the locals, “What did you think when they were bringing the Jews here and killing them?” And their response was, “It was good.”
I think it was difficult and emotional for my father, but I think he also gleaned a lot of strength by being with us his children, and on a second trip with the grandchildren, and just feeling that he was doing his duty to bear witness, to give testimony. That’s why I feel like it is a blessing to have these people as my parents, but it’s also a responsibility that I take this seriously and make sure that these stories go on because there are very few survivors. I think that as a child of Holocaust survivors, because I had these personal experiences, I want to be able to share them in a way that hopefully can connect with people and touch them and open them up to this emotional learning experience.
Michael Arnold: Tell us a little bit more about what you’re doing currently. Let’s focus on the books. One of them was approved for use in public schools in Texas and maybe a few other states as well.
Anna Salton Eisen: Pillar of Salt, which is my book, the second book that I co-wrote with my son, has been approved in the state of Texas for use in schools. We are making a documentary film also geared toward younger people. So it’s got full color, some animation and artwork, original music. I’m speaking and sharing the story at synagogues, at churches. I’ve been to all different faith-based groups, large Catholic churches, non-denominational, Presbyterian, and Methodists, and sharing the story because I feel that the churches play a huge role in taking this and turning it into a lesson about character and kindness. There are a lot of biblical references in Pillar of Salt. Just today I had a classroom that watched a recorded presentation, and then I Zoomed in for 20 minutes for questions.
I’m also doing educator training for large organizations. I also work with the states of Maine, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. I’m working with a hospital group that has 21 hospitals and 30,000 employees, as well as military bases, book clubs, and rotaries. I’m just trying to continue the work of sharing the lessons, bringing it into classrooms. I find that there are so many teachers that are so inspired, and they inspire me because they have a lot of passion. They’re creative in what they do. For example, my father’s artwork or his drawings in the book, which were at the US Holocaust Museum and in Poland, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum, are also on my website and he donated them to the museum with the condition that there be no restrictions. So educators can download them, use them as prompts in the classroom, use them in art classes. And the same with the documents. I have a lot of Nazi documents in this and everything is to be shared.
I speak, and I don’t accept any fees because this is just kind of my calling. I went to one school in San Antonio, Texas where I spoke to a thousand students, but that is not always possible. So I really want to have teachers and educators feel that they can email me, set up a Zoom schedule, send me a link. Some teachers have asked if the students write letters, would I write back? And I told them to format them into one letter with multiple questions. And, absolutely I will write back to them and try and keep an ongoing relationship. I still meet people including a local superintendent of schools and a local pastor, who both said, “I remember 20 years ago when your father came and spoke in the middle school and now those kids are 31 and 35 years old.”
But it had a lifelong impact. And so I’m trying to just continue the message and I think that it is these next generations that we have to make sure that they understand what the history was. And as you said, there are many subjects, including drama and music, that can be introduced. We went to one university where someone wrote a symphony piece based on the story. In art classes, not only can they look at my father’s art, but they can take a piece of the story that maybe touches them and create their own art to go along with it. So I think that if we look at our future leaders, teachers, parents, caregivers, in any field, having compassion, and understanding how the small things that we do can really change and even save a life.
Michael Arnold: This is not just a sub-point in the World War II chapter in our history textbook. There are so many different applications of the firsthand experience story of your father. It’s a very engaging and very compelling read. And your story is also very useful in a wide variety of contexts outside of the history class, in language arts, religion, Bible, and a lot of different contexts.
Anna Salton Eisen: In my father’s story, there were many Christians, many that did small things that really saved his life. They showed him kindness, they did not act with cruelty, even though that was the norm. And when my father would speak about those things it would make him cry the most. It was acts of kindness that he remembered that touched him, not the acts of enslavement, in the bitter cruelty that he experienced as well.
Moving Back to Texas
Michael Arnold: And it’s not just history. It’s not over– the bigotry, hatred, prejudice. The worst of humanity is still alive and present in our world today. It’s not just the history for you, it’s not just your parents’ experience. You’ve lived it in your own life. Do you mind sharing a little bit about that experience when you moved to Texas?
Anna Salton Eisen: Sure. When I came back from Poland, I lived in a community where there were some Jews and there was no house of worship. Here I had just gone and toured a country with empty synagogues and no Jews. So I felt that I was inspired to come back and create a faith community, a place to worship. At first we were blessed that so many local churches invited us into their sanctuary. And I remember my father saying this never would’ve happened in Poland. For him that was even a sign of redemption and healing that we were welcome into different churches and faith communities.
I had to go back and relearn the Hebrew letter so that I could become a Hebrew teacher and pass on the lessons and re-study the Bible myself. I got my first Star of David necklace because I had learned to kind of be invisible from my father up until then.
And then of course, in January of 2022, the synagogue I founded where I was first president, was where a gunman came from Manchester, England. And on a very cold Saturday morning in the middle of a worship service, he came in and held my rabbi and three friends hostage for a terrible, long day, thinking about the same anti-Semitic tropes– Jews control the media, control the banks and control the press–and that by holding us hostage, he believed he would get a terrorist who was in a federal prison about 30 minutes from us released, which didn’t happen.
It just showed us that anti-Semitism is a current event. We now have to have armed guards when we gather to pray. It is a scary thing and it makes us very sad, but we have to be realistic and understand that hate can lead to violence and that’s why we have to stomp it out at the hatred and not wait. People always ask when they interview me, “How is your congregation? Are you healed?” I’m also a licensed therapist, so I say, “Well, the first step in healing from trauma is to experience safety. And we don’t feel safe. We are not there yet.”
As an author, I’ve gotten lots of hateful, anti-Semitic messages, emails, social media. I even went to a church and they promoted it on their social media and they got some threats that made them concerned enough to have to call law enforcement. But they said, “Wow. This makes us realize why this is so important. It also helps us to understand what it must feel like to have to go to pray and make sure all the doors are locked and that there’s a guard outside with a gun and that we have panic buttons and security cameras inside and outside.”
But this is the reality of what we live in. There are people today who honor the Nazi flags, who honor Hitler. I don’t think they understand that when they do that, they really dishonor the American flag, and they dishonor our military and our history. I’m not sure we can get through to those hate groups, but there’s a lot of other people that we can still try and create unity with to try and fight this.
Michael Arnold: That’s why I love the work that you’re doing with other survivors or children of other survivors and even the liberators and the children of the liberators, telling those stories, amplifying the stories of self-sacrifice, service, connection, devotion, unity, and even friendship. Share with us a little bit about that and some of the work that you’ve done along those lines.
Anna Salton Eisen: Well, I’ve always been raised to be patriotic and grateful for the liberation. I had a wonderful time that I spent as a very active volunteer with the USO before I went back to graduate school. And yes, I was just astounded that my father’s camp was liberated by about seven or eight soldiers on a patrol from the 504 that came across the camp accidentally and one of the soldiers, one of the seven or eight, lived right in my community. I read about him in the paper and introduced my father to him and they became friends. They even traveled to Europe together where they went back to the camp where they first met across the barbed wire. And just this past Labor Day, I flew to D.C. to Arlington National Cemetery to attend his funeral. I last saw him when he was 101. He died at 103. So I got to go and it was really important and meaningful to me to pay my respects. He’s actually been nominated for all kinds of awards, like the Medal of Honor.
There are others as well that I’ve met. That’s why I’m going to speak at the National Convention of the 82nd Airborne. I’ve been twice before. There’s some World War II veterans that I’m really honored to meet and thank on behalf of my father. I’ve met children of these veterans and children of survivors. A lot of the children of survivors had my same experience. Their parents didn’t talk. Now they are left with a lot of questions.
So I think I’m very, very fortunate that my father did go back with me and did pass on the story and I have his recorded testimonies, as well as my mother’s that I’m still learning from today. I’m doing a lot of research. We are planning to do another biography of my mother. And we’re just finding out all kinds of incredible things about her and her experiences even since she passed last July at the age of a hundred. So she had a very full, blessed life with my father.
Michael Arnold: Well, I appreciate the fact that you make this story accessible. I think that’s really helpful because the hatred isn’t gone, the bigotry isn’t gone. It’s still present and we can access it and discuss it through this historical perspective that you’re making so accessible to schools and you make yourself accessible as well. And so I thank you for your work. Thank you for the stories that you’re sharing and thank you for your father and his heroism and bravery to just confront his own story and share that for the good of other people.
We’re going to have your son, Aaron, who is picking up the mantle and carrying it forward in other ways based on his giftedness and strengths and the things that he likes to do. We’re going to have him on to talk about that process in the near future as well. So I’m excited to look forward to that. In the meantime, we’ll invite people to your website. It’s just your name: annasaltoneisen.com. Check it out and find out what Anna can bring to your classroom.
So Anna, I know you have several resources out there that teachers would find helpful. Would you just outline some of those?
Anna Salton Eisen: Sure. In addition to my father’s artwork that can be downloaded and shared, some of the lists and documents from his different experience in Nazi concentration camps. There’s also a recorded presentation. It’s 25 minutes long and it’s the one that I give live. It has my father’s original artwork, authentic Nazi documents, photographs from our journey back to Poland, stories about the 10 concentration camps, and my reunion with children of survivors and liberators. This can be downloaded and shared, or there’s a YouTube link in any classroom. It’s free of charge.
We also are just finishing production of another video. It will be on the website soon. It’s about Rena Sendler, who was a Polish Catholic social worker, very famous in trying to hide approximately 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Then it links into my mother’s story, who after the war, was working to go and find these hidden children and bring them back to the Jewish community.
So both of these videos are approximately 25 minutes and they can just be shown in your classroom anytime. They’re just an individual, unique view. They’re age appropriate. You can feel free to contact me if you want me to do a Zoom visit to the class or assist you in any other kind of way or even come visit in person.
Michael Arnold: That sounds great. And I think you have plans to expand on those resources over time and support educators in additional ways into the future.
Anna Salton Eisen: Yeah, we’re starting to do a lot of teacher training now for big organizations, for different holocaust museums and schools, but we are going to be planning to have a special educator page where you can go and there will be some resources, teaching guides, and different ideas, and we’re hoping that teachers will also engage with us and maybe share how they have used the resources. But we want to be educator friendly. Same with the upcoming film that’s based on both books. Our biggest goal and audience that we’re hoping to reach are the next generations.
Michael Arnold: Thanks again. It’s been great to have you in the Teacher’s Lounge.
Anna Salton Eisen: It’s been my pleasure and honor to be here.
To listen to this interview in its entirety, you can find it on The Teacher’s Lounge podcast.