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Sharing Family Secrets

In a new book and forthcoming documentary film, Anna Salton Eisen tells the stories about the Holocaust that her parents once tried to hide from her

Jamie Betesh Carter
April 26, 2022
George Salton
Detail of a watercolor painted by George Salton (then Lucjan Salzman) in 1946 at a displaced persons campGeorge Salton
George Salton
Detail of a watercolor painted by George Salton (then Lucjan Salzman) in 1946 at a displaced persons campGeorge Salton

When Anna Salton Eisen was growing up in Maryland in the 1960s, she realized she never saw photos of her parents when they were young, and there weren’t any photographs of her parents’ families in their home. She knew her parents survived the Holocaust, and would occasionally overhear them speak about it, but it was always in hushed voices. She and her brothers didn’t ask any questions.

Then one day when she was 8, Eisen was looking for a deck of playing cards. As she shuffled through the drawers in her family’s home, she found two watercolor paintings—signed by her father—of vivid Holocaust scenes depicting guns, blood, and death in the ghettos and camps. It all clicked for her, and she realized why there were no family photos in her home. “When I was 10 years old,” Eisen told me recently, “​​I had gone to a friend’s house and I remember telling her, ‘You know, my dad was in a camp and he was in a boxcar. All his family was killed.’ Her parents pulled me aside and said, ‘Do not ever talk about this again.’ So my parents had their secret, and then in a way, it became my secret. It became something I was shamed into thinking you’re not supposed to talk about.”

'Execution Pit' painted by George Salton (then Lucjan Salzman) in 1946 at a displaced persons camp
‘Execution Pit’ painted by George Salton (then Lucjan Salzman) in 1946 at a displaced persons campGeorge Salton

As Eisen got older, she kept her secret of finding the paintings to herself, too afraid to bring it up to her parents. Yet, her interest in the Holocaust and her parents’ histories intensified. Her family’s secrets began affecting her, and she’d frequently have nightmares. “Whatever differences and self-doubt I experienced as a teenager were magnified by the belief that I, as a child of Holocaust survivors, was separated from my peers by an unbridgeable chasm,” Eisen writes in her new memoir, Pillar of Salt: A Daughter’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust. “Instead, I swallowed my secrets and lived two uncomfortable lives—the outside me and the truer frightened inner self. And in my loneliness, I longed for the grandparents I never knew.” Eisen knew her parents wanted to protect her by not speaking of the Holocaust; however, she was intent on finding out what happened.

It wasn’t until Eisen attended college in the 1970s that she would hear her father finally speak of his past. While taking a course on the Holocaust, she asked her father to come talk to her class about what he’d been through. “He spoke of everything I had longed to know,” Eisen writes, “but now that the words were coming from him, I found they were more than my heart could bear.”

Eisen became so infatuated with her family’s past that she proposed hiring a genealogist to travel to Poland and trace her family’s history. “And that’s when we had the confrontation,” Eisen said. “I told him, ‘All I know is that I’m named for a woman who died in a gas chamber.’ I started asking what camps he was in, and what happened, and he took out a legal pad and started writing it down.” This was the moment Eisen had been waiting for since she found those paintings at 8 years old. She was finally about to learn her father’s past, and from that, figure out who she was in the world. She had gotten her father to face his past, and share it with her. And once he started, he couldn’t stop. Eisen’s conversations with her father turned into daily, hourslong phone calls, and 600 pages of notes that would eventually become a book. She co-wrote The 23rd Psalm: A Holocaust Memoir with her father, George Salton, in 2002.

'The Rzeszów Ghetto,' painted by George Salton (then Lucjan Salzman) in 1946 at a displaced persons camp
‘The Rzeszów Ghetto,’ painted by George Salton (then Lucjan Salzman) in 1946 at a displaced persons campGeorge Salton

While Salton’s memoir tells a detailed description of his life during the Holocaust, Eisen sees her own memoir, Pillar of Salt, as the completion of her story with her father. In it, she documents her family’s trip to Poland to explore their lives before and during the Holocaust. The narrative comes to life as Eisen’s father transforms from never speaking of the Holocaust, to making it his life’s work: After Salton retired from his career at the Pentagon and in the aerospace industry, he focused on spreading awareness of his story and the Holocaust more broadly through his memoir. He lectured nationally at schools, universities, synagogues, churches, and conferences, and together with his wife, founded organizations dedicated to the education of young people about the Holocaust.

As Pillar of Salt moves through three sections (Eisen’s upbringing, her family’s trip to Poland, and the emotional impact her father’s book and story had on her and others) the relationship between Eisen and her father becomes the emotional core of the book.

Eisen had worked on a draft of Pillar of Salt years ago, but decided against pursuing publishing it as her father’s health declined. Salton died in 2016, and Eisen put her book on the backburner. She even destroyed almost all of the manuscript copies. It was her son who found the last copy in 2020 and pushed Eisen to do something with it.

“I came upon the manuscript for my mother’s memoir by accident—in a Kafkaesque move, she wanted to destroy all the copies—much in the way that my mother had accidentally come across two watercolor paintings of the Holocaust by her father hidden in a living room drawer that began her journey into her family’s past when she was a child,” said Eisen’s son Aaron. It was then that he motivated her to work on edits together, and finally publish it.

As the Eisens were working on sharing their family’s stories, they also found themselves living an unwelcome parallel life to their father and grandfather. When Eisen was a newlywed, she had moved to Texas and soon after helped establish the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville. She was the founder and first president of the congregation, so when an armed gunman entered the synagogue and held four people hostage earlier this year, Eisen felt history was repeating itself.

George Salton and Anna Salton Eisen
George Salton and Anna Salton Eisen

Eisen witnessed the hostage scene via livestream, as she was watching from home with her 100-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor as well, in the next room. “As I told her what was happening, her eyes filled with tears,” said Eisen. “She was emotional and I could see the shock of realization go across her expression. But I had to tell her because I’m a big believer in the truth. Especially because growing up we sometimes avoided the truth to spare people pain.”

On that first Shabbat after the hostages were released, Eisen and her mother returned to Congregation Beth Israel to attend services. Eisen’s mom insisted on accompanying her, and when they arrived, the rabbi brought her mother up in front of the congregation. “As she went up with the rabbi, he said to my mother, ‘Ruth, this is truly a night of survivors because of what we’ve both been through,’” Eisen recalled.

The Eisens are committed to continuing to share the stories of their family’s past. Aaron has become his mother’s copilot in retelling the stories of his grandparents. The two are working on a documentary film about Eisen’s father’s life, In My Father’s Words, due out later this year. After their film debuts, their next project will be to write a book about Eisen’s 100-year-old mother, who was instrumental in the underground during the Holocaust. “For my father to know that we didn’t let his story end with him … that there’s a documentary film being made by the third generation of survivors, and liberators, would mean so much to him,” Eisen said. “In one of my father’s speeches about being a survivor, he addressed those who are struggling, or have despair, and he said, ‘When you feel lost, and don’t know where to turn, look to us.’ My father was always there to teach others what surviving, family, and love are.”

Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.