WESTLAKE, Texas – Anna Salton Eisen found the old photos – wallet-sized black and white images of Jewish prisoners who survived the Holocaust – in a file her late father, George Lucius Salton, kept most of his life.
The Texas woman recognized the names of some of the teens and young men from stories told by her father. For three years, the baby-faced captives lived among the dead and dying in barracks and boxcars as Nazi kidnappers moved them from Poland to France to Germany. The skeletal friends said a tearful Kaddish – a Jewish mourning prayer – after learning that their parents had died in the gas chambers.
But suddenly the familiar names had faces.
“Seeing the faces of each of them really brought the story to life,” said Eisen, who discovered the photos while moving her mother, Ruth Salton, 99, from Florida to the Dallas area in the summer. latest.
Eisen, 62, said she felt compelled to learn more about the confidants who had meant so much to her father, who died at 88 in 2016.
George Salton was 17 when the US military liberated the Wobbelin concentration camp in Germany on May 2, 1945. Over the following years, the survivors dispersed throughout the world. Most have lost contact with each other.
But 76 years after American soldiers cut barbed wire and realized the prisoners’ impossible dream of freedom, Eisen set out to reunite the relatives of the survivors.
When Eisen began her research, she relied on names written in pencil on the backs of photos or mentioned several times in Salton’s 2002 book, “The 23rd Psalm: A Holocaust Memorial.”
As she browsed through Nazi-era data, official documents, lists of concentration camps and post-war records stored online in the Arolsen Archives of the International Center for Nazi Persecution in Germany, Eisen said verified the names and dates of birth of survivors.
Through Ancestry.com, she explored passenger lists from ships that took Holocaust survivors to other countries, Social Security cards documenting name changes, obituaries and family trees.
Some assumed new identities as they made a fresh start after the war. Eisen’s father was born under the name Lucek Salzman in the town of Tyczyn, Poland. But after the dangers he faced, he chose a less Jewish-sounding name when he arrived in New York City in 1947.
Searches on Google and Facebook led Eisen to the children and grandchildren of his father’s friends, most of whom never knew – until now – the full story of what their loved ones went through.
Todd Nussen, a history teacher at Oceanside High School, New York, reacted with shock – and excitement – when Eisen texted him in late July asking him about his namesake grandfather, Tobias Nussen, who died in age 52 in 1973.
“Now I have details. Now I have the facts, ”said the 40-year-old educator.
Following Eisen’s search, the family members of eight Holocaust survivors first met on a recent Sunday.
Some exchanged hugs and tears in person at a New Jersey hotel suite.
Others connected via Zoom from Israel, Sweden and Texas.
“It just gave me chills,” Bobbie Ziff, 67, a Jackson, New Jersey resident, said of the emotional rally, which came together less than four months after the photos were discovered.
Ziff is the daughter of Tobias Nussen and the aunt of Todd Nussen.
His father built a new life in America and owned a lunchroom in Brooklyn, New York, Ziff said. He never spoke about the Holocaust, but he often had nightmares and screamed in his sleep.
Eisen sent Ziff a copy of Tobias Nussen’s photo along with his name in a small diary that belonged to Salton.
“It was just crazy, crazy,” Ziff said. “My only regret is that this didn’t happen during his father’s (Salton) lifetime. I wanted to talk to him.
In the photo of another of the photos Eisen found: Motek Hoffstetter.
His daughter Aviva Findler, a retired teacher who lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, said her father, like many other survivors, refused to talk about the Holocaust.
“During the reunion, I found out that he was highly respected by his friends, which made me really proud and sad,” Findler said. “Seeing us all on Zoom made me wonder once again about the power of life that allowed our fathers to start families and live after all the losses they have suffered and what they have. been witnesses. “
Similarly, Anna Schlachet, 69, a doctor in Stockholm, said her father, Moses Ziment, had said little about his experience with the Holocaust.
However, he told her that “the rest of the family were gassed to death”.
“Sitting in a Zoom meeting with people I didn’t even know existed before, and at the same time realizing that we largely share the same story, was a very strange and unreal experience,” Schlachet said.
Another of the survivors, Emil Ringel, also moved to the United States. Ringel and his wife, Clara, introduced Salton – Eisen’s father – to his future wife, Ruth, whose own Jewish family had fled Poland and worked in labor camps in Siberia during World War II. Ringel died at the age of 52 in 1979.
Daughter Barbara Ringel, from Queens, New York, loved meeting the children and grandchildren of her father’s friends.
“This strength of spirit, this courage, this resilience, this ability to really try to push each other to survive -” that was what characterized all of our fathers, “said Barbara Ringel.
For much of his life, Eisen’s own father believed in keeping the past in the past. He preferred to focus on the life of the American dream.
The other survivors did the same, not wanting to dwell on their rotten teeth or explain why they refused to waste even a single piece of bread.
“It’s an injury,” said Ruth Salton of what she and her 63-year-old husband went through growing up. “We didn’t want any of our kids to wear the things we’ve been through. We thought, ‘This is going to hurt them. We want them to be happy. ”
George Salton proudly served in the same US Army that had saved him. He obtained degrees in physics and electrical engineering. He held a senior position in the Pentagon and held a leadership position in the aerospace industry.
But eventually, her three children – especially Eisen, named after a grandmother she never knew – demanded answers about her childhood.
This led George, Ruth and the three grown children to travel to Poland in 1998 to visit former concentration camps and ghettos, remains of synagogues and cemeteries throughout the country of Central Europe.
With Eisen’s help, Salton recounted the details of his family’s Holocaust experience in his 2002 memoir.
“Each day merges with the next, filled with hunger, sleepless nights, forced labor and the constant threat of beatings, selections and executions,” he wrote.
The book – and the New Jersey rally – helped Miriam Kershner, daughter of Holocaust survivor Moses Tuchman, understand her father in a way she never had, she said.
“We all felt so connected by our parents, and we all knew our parents survived each other,” said the retired teacher, 65, who lives in Marlboro, New Jersey.
“I felt like I had known her all my life,” Kershner said of his meeting with Eisen. “We are the sisters of another mother. In fact, we will meet again.
For his part, Eisen is in the process of writing his own book, “Pillar of Salt: A Daughter’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust”, which is due out next April. She is cooperating with filmmaker Jacob Wise on a documentary based on her father’s experience and its impact on the second generation.
Eisen, a member of Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform Jewish community in Colleyville, Texas, said the title of the book reflects his faith.
“I felt compelled to look back even though I had been warned not to,” she said, referring to the biblical account of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. “I knew I was in danger of being changed, but I had to face the past for the sake of my father.
“It was not easy for me to bring the truth to these other families. It was painful. But it was their story, and it was theirs.
It is important, she believes, that the younger generations keep the reality of the Holocaust alive.
Aaron Eisen, Anna’s 30-year-old son and ‘Pillar of Salt’ co-author, expressed pride in his mother’s efforts.
“My grandfather, when he was giving speeches, said that the Holocaust was incomprehensible, that we cannot understand how it happened,” said Aaron Eisen, who attended the rally in New Jersey. “But I think over time we start to understand, and what my mom is talking about is that there is still so much to learn. With technology and archives, there are still so many lessons.
As Ruth Salton nears her 100th birthday, even she now understands the importance of telling the story, she said.
“It’s the only way to continue,” she said. “I’m so happy the kids are interested. Children want to tell the story, and children can now experience and feel what we have felt all of our lives. ‘
Not all of Anna Eisen’s research has had a happy ending.
One of the photos showed a young man named Izok Rypp.
Izok – Yiddish for ‘Isaac’ – survived 10 concentration camps with George Salton and the others, apparently the only member of his family to escape the gas chambers as Nazi Germany systematically killed 6 million European Jews.
But he never left a camp for internally displaced people in Germany after the prisoners were released. He died at the age of 19 in July 1947, according to a death certificate. No cause of death was given.
He was the same age as Eisen’s father.
“He never had the chance to have a life or a family,” Eisen said. “But his photo and his story in my father’s book have preserved his memory and his story.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.