By Ben Tinsley
COLLEYVILLE — To audible gasps at points from a Congregation Beth Israel audience, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor shared her father’s harrowing wartime journey and her return with him to Poland years later to explore and write about that past.
Anna Salton Eisen’s April 15 presentation — in recognition of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day — revolved around her personal mission to dig through the defenses of her father, George Salton, and learn about his life experiences during the Holocaust.
“He raised my brothers as if the Holocaust had never happened,” she said. “But I wanted — I needed — to know more.”
It took some time and much personal exploration, but the two of them would journey to Poland with family members, and ultimately weave his memories into the book, The 23rd Psalm: A Holocaust Memoir, first published Sept. 4, 2002.
Eisen and her family helped found Colleyville Congregation Beth Israel. She is a former docent at the Dallas Holocaust Museum and a former interviewer for the Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education — the nonprofit organization established by Steven Spielberg in 1994 after he completed the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List.
The story Anna Eisen told was her father’s, but from her own perspective — that of someone who originally had no idea what her father had experienced because he did not want to talk about it.
As a child of some 8 or 9 years old, Anna Eisen came across some watercolor paintings in a drawer in her childhood home. They contained disturbing images of death and destruction, and she wondered who could paint such images.
The artist was Lucjan Lucek Salzman, the Holocaust survivor who would change his name after the war to George Lucius Salton.
“It was not until I was an adult that I would learn it was my father,” Eisen said to the Congregation Beth Israel audience.
Until such movies as 1993’s Schindler’s List made many Holocaust victims more comfortable discussing their experiences, Anna Eisen was in the dark about the horror of her father’s childhood in Tyczyn, Poland — which was shattered in September 1939 by the terror and violence under the German occupation.
George Salton’s attorney father was not allowed to work and his family suffered deprivation and hunger, forcing him to his own devices to provide for them — sometimes by such rudimentary means as splitting wood and digging potatoes.
George Salton, 14, and his family were forced to march to the Rzeszów Ghetto. Anna and Herman Salzmann were sent in boxcars to Belzec (where 600,000 Jews perished in its gas chambers in less than 12 months) while George and his older brother Manek were left behind to labor in work camps.
Manek managed to escape, but George Salton was imprisoned at Rzeszów and for three hellish years worked his way through 10 concentration camps, including Rzeszów, Płaszów, Flossenbürg, Colmar, Sachsenhausen, Braunschweig, Ravensbrück, and Wöbbelin.
Eventually, the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division liberated him and 49 others from the Wöbbelin concentration camp near Ludwigslust, Germany, on May 2, 1945.
George Salton spent another two years in various German displaced persons camps, and was eventually able to find his relatives and emigrate to New York.
But he never heard from any of his family — including Manek.
After changing his name, George Salton began life again in the United States. Despite never having finished fifth grade before he was caught up in the Holocaust, he ended up earning degrees in physics and engineering and pursuing a successful career in the U.S. Department of Defense and in private industry.
Eisen said she helped her father write the book with the initial intention that it would be primarily for family. But she realized during the process that it should be read by many more.
And as the book gained momentum, important developments started taking place:
Eisen met a woman who lived 10 minutes from her Colleyville home, whose late father, Ignatz Waks, had been in all 10 concentration camps with her father.
Also in Colleyville, Eisen met Jim Megellas, one of the American veterans of the 82nd Airborne who liberated her father.
Additionally, a book editor turned out to be the daughter of another soldier who helped liberate George Salton.
Then Eisen came across even more astonishing news: The brother that his father thought had died, Manek, might be alive. He was spotted that way in a 1946 photo.
So she and her family took great pains to contact the brother. But after many unsuccessful attempts they learned that Manek had died some time ago.
According to one account, Manek was searching for a newborn abandoned on a doorstep in a small Polish town when he was slain.
“Through a door, a gun was pointed and he was shot and killed,” Anna Eisen said.While in Poland, father and daughter visited many places, including Płaszów, the concentration camp featured in Schindler’s List. Tyczyn, the town where George Salton was born, is now the location of memorials and learning centers for survivors of the Holocaust.
They traveled to Auschwitz, where more than a million Jews were killed … and where the boxcars drove on tracks and led Jews to death in gas chambers.
Along the way, they walked on human ashes. And saw millions of shoes abandoned by the people killed in gas chambers.
“Poland is covered with extermination camps, concentration camps and ghettos,” she said. “It is a map of the destruction of our people.”
Bob Goldberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, thanked Anna Eisen for sharing her story — which was followed by many audience questions and comments.
“It’s incredibly powerful and kind of knocks the wind out of us a little bit,” Goldberg said. “It’s amazing when you realize in the scope of history that it wasn’t that long ago. … It is incredibly important as we lose our survivors that we have people who can continue to share this history so it doesn’t happen again.”
Today George Salton is a resident of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Before she began her presentation, Anna Eisen lit and placed a candle on the Yom HaShoah Memorial menorah, as did Holocaust survivor Tova Feldman.
Feldman, a member of the congregation, survived a labor camp where she was imprisoned in 1942. She escaped the camp with her parents and four siblings and hid for nine months in the woods, according to her biography listed in the program.
She and her family were captured three weeks before the war was over and released — ultimately emigrating to Israel.