Pil­lar of Salt: A Daugh­ter’s Life in the Shad­ow of the Holocaust

  • Review
By – March 28, 2022

Anna Salton Eisen grows up sur­round­ed by all the trap­pings of an idyl­lic Jew­ish Amer­i­can child­hood: a house in the Mary­land sub­urbs, Hebrew school, clothes, books, lav­ish meals, and unques­tion­ing, all-envelop­ing love. But, as we learn from Pil­lar of Salt, Salton Eisen’s affect­ing mem­oir, there is an abyss yawn­ing at the heart of this decep­tive­ly hap­py fam­i­ly, one that draws in any­thing, or any­one, who comes too close.

That abyss is the Holo­caust. Her father, George Salton (born Luc­jan Salz­man) is a sur­vivor of ten con­cen­tra­tion camps. Her moth­er fled Poland only to end up in a Sovi­et labor camp. Both man­aged to claw their way out. But it claimed Anna’s grand­par­ents, her uncles, her aunts, and all the unborn cousins that she, a child of the 1950s, would nev­er know but would for­ev­er miss.

For Anna’s moth­er, friends and neigh­bors are ephemer­al. You’ll have oth­er friends,” she says, the only peo­ple that mat­ter are fam­i­ly.” For her father, there is no past, only dark­ness. I am Adam!” he cries, Noth­ing came before me. Every­thing and every­one is gone and it all starts over with me.”

Salton Eisen, an author, Jew­ish edu­ca­tor, and inter­view­er for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foun­da­tion, describes an upbring­ing that will be all too famil­iar to chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors. Despite their par­ents’ most deter­mined efforts, trau­ma is almost inevitably vis­it­ed upon the sec­ond generation.

For Salton Eisen, this trau­ma plays out in an all-con­sum­ing com­pul­sion to under­stand what hap­pened to her par­ents and to her lost fam­i­ly. Even as a child, she haunts libraries, learn­ing every­thing she can about the Holo­caust. But except for acci­den­tal glimpses — she stum­bles upon a hor­rif­ic series of sketch­es of camp vic­tims drawn by her father at war’s end — her par­ents’ his­to­ry remains closed to her. They deal with the past like Lot’s wife, by not look­ing back. But it is Anna, trans­fixed by the past and her father’s grief, who fears turn­ing into a pil­lar of salt.

Cathar­sis, or some­thing like it, comes in the con­text of a trip to Poland. There, Salton Eisen and her par­ents con­front the ambigu­ous present — car­i­ca­tures of Jews sold as good luck charms in the Kraków mar­ket, uneasy Poles side­step­ping ques­tions about the dead Jews whose homes they inhab­it. They end up in the ruins of Belzec. Stand­ing in the sluice” — the ramp lead­ing into the gas cham­ber, down which her grand­par­ents stum­bled dur­ing their last moments on earth — the past comes rush­ing in. For the first time, Salton Eisen weeps not for shad­ows, but for real peo­ple, peo­ple who would be proud of the man their son has become, of the chil­dren he raised and kept safe from harm. Liv­ing and dead alike are freed from the weight of the past.

The Salton family’s jour­ney into its own past unleash­es a flood of mem­o­ry and cre­ativ­i­ty. Pil­lar of Salt is itself a sort of back­sto­ry to her father George Salton’s own Holo­caust mem­oir, The 23rd Psalm, which Salton Eisen helped to write. But with its clear, unadorned recount­ing of a family’s pain, and of the echoes of the Shoah that con­tin­ue down through gen­er­a­tions, Pil­lar of Salt stands alone as a first­hand account of sur­vivor syn­drome.” Salton Eisen’s thumb­nail accounts of the peo­ple, places and events asso­ci­at­ed with the destruc­tion of the Jews, mean­while, serve as a use­ful intro­duc­tion for read­ers unfa­mil­iar with the period.

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

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