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.