Children of two Holocaust survivors find each other, and find answers
SECTION: Domestic News
LENGTH: 1480 words
EDITOR’S NOTE – On Thursday, George Lucius Salton, author of “The 23rd Psalm: A Holocaust Memoir,” addresses the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which liberated him from a concentration camp in 1945. His message, at the 82nd Airborne Division Association convention in Reno, Nev., is: “You ended the long night of the Holocaust for me.”
By BOBBY ROSS JR.
AP Religion Writer
SOUTHLAKE, Texas (AP) — In George Lucius Salton’s view, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
His daughter, Anna Eisen, called him at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., with a question that sent his mind racing back 60 years to the hell he survived as a Jewish teenager.
Eisen, named after the grandmother she never knew, wanted to know if her father remembered a man from his native Poland with the last name Waks.
“Ignatz Waks?” Salton replied without hesitation.
Yes, his daughter said.
Of course he remembered him.
“He was my friend and we were together in all 10 concentration camps and then we were liberated and separated,” the 76-year-old told his daughter.
For three years, Salton and Waks lived among the dead and dying in barracks and boxcars as their Nazi captors moved them from Poland to France to Germany.
Just a few years removed from a life of playing soccer and reading books about Tarzan and Tom Sawyer, the teens were beaten and starved, and forced to wear big yellow Stars of David painted on their shirts to identify them as Jews.
They were among a handful of close-knit friends who somehow gave each other the will to survive, even as they shared watery bowls of soup or subsisted on grass, weeds and roots until the ground was bare.
Salton and Waks consoled each other and said a tearful Kaddish _ a Jewish prayer of mourning _ when they learned their mothers and fathers had been sent to the gas chambers.
At one camp, Salton and Waks slept on the same narrow bunk, making do with a single thin blanket.
In May 1945, U.S. soldiers cut down the barbed wire at the Wobbelin concentration camp in Germany, rescuing the Jewish prisoners and fulfilling their impossible dream of freedom.
“I had lived with the Angel of Death, and now I stood among the angels of life,” Salton wrote years later.
A few years after his liberation, Salton immigrated to the United States. Waks stayed in Germany.
Both married and raised children who had no extended family _ no grandparents, no aunts, uncles or cousins _ because they had all been executed.
Salton and Waks set about rebuilding their lives and putting the Holocaust behind them. They lost touch and never saw each other again.
While their children were growing up, neither talked much about their Holocaust experience.
But their deep despair was impossible to miss.
“Our dad was sad,” said Miriam Grantham, 42, one of two girls and two boys born to Waks’ second wife. “He cried a lot. He drank. I think he always tried to drown his grief.”
Even with his freedom secure, Waks constantly watched over his shoulder, expecting soldiers to bang on the door any minute and take him away.
He never opened up about the agony he endured _ the unprovoked beatings, the smell of rotting corpses, the thousands of lice that ate away at his body and kept him awake, robbing him of his only escape from cruel reality.
“He would just cry and mention his family, but he wouldn’t talk about things like that,” Grantham said.
Salton never denied what happened, but he was determined not to dwell on it. He wanted to protect his two sons and daughter from the gory details.
Besides, he had moved on.
He served in the U.S. Army and met Ruth, his wife of 51 years. He later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked many years at the Pentagon and in the aerospace industry as an engineer.
But about five years ago, his daughter, now 45, demanded that her father share the details of his suffering.
“It got to the point in my life where I really had to ask,” Eisen said. “I had to say, ‘Dad, you’re so sad. What troubles you? What happened?’ ”
That led to the writing of Salton’s autobiography, “The 23rd Psalm: A Holocaust Memoir,” published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2002.
Like many survivors, Salton had felt that the Jewish work camps and ghettos contained no memories to honor. The years after the liberation, he believed, were the ones to share, as if they could somehow erase what came before.
But telling his story changed his perspective and brought healing, he said.
“I have not just filled the empty spaces of my past for my children, but for the children of other survivors, and for the children of liberators as well,” he wrote in a Jewish newspaper piece last year.
Even before the book was printed, Eisen and Margaret Walsh, the book’s editor, made a surprising discovery.
Walsh’s father, William, was among a handful of young American soldiers who liberated the Wobbelin camp. William Walsh, who died in 1992, was awarded two Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross.
Eisen and Salton traveled to Wisconsin, where they met William Walsh’s survivors.
Walsh had cut down the Nazi flag at the camp where Salton was rescued. Salton got to see it.
“It was pretty emotional,” Margaret Walsh said. “It was kind of amazing because it kind of brought my dad back.”
For Salton, another unexpected connection still awaited.
On April 19, the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day, Eisen’s telephone rang.
The woman on the other end wanted information about a synagogue under construction in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville, not far from Eisen’s home in the bedroom community of Southlake.
As membership chairwoman of Congregation Beth Israel, Eisen talked about how a few families had started the small Reform congregation five years before.
As the conversation continued, Eisen asked about the woman’s accent.
“Where are you from?” she said, politely.
“Germany,” replied the woman, who came to the United States after marrying a U.S. soldier. “My mother lives in Germany and my father was from Poland.”
“Poland?” Eisen said. “Well, that’s where my dad’s from. And where was your dad during the war?”
The woman _ Grantham _ explained that her dad was held in Nazi concentration camps.
“Well, what was your family name?” Eisen said.
“Waks,” Grantham replied.
“God, I know that name,” Eisen said.
After calling her father to ask about Waks, Eisen e-mailed him a black-and-white photograph of Grantham’s dad, who had died in 1991.
Salton recognized the face immediately.
“He didn’t have hair when I knew him, but that’s him,” Salton said. The boys’ heads were shaved at the concentration camps.
When Eisen called Grantham back, both sobbed on the phone. They had lived minutes apart for years _ Grantham in the nearby community of Hurst _ yet never connected.
Grantham soon read Salton’s book and gained a sudden new understanding of what her father experienced.
“I always knew how terrible that was for my dad,” she said. “But this brought it just so much more to life, what he really endured. It’s just a lot more personal.”
In the weeks that followed, Eisen and Grantham met and bonded as only children of survivors can. Their boys _ Aaron Eisen and Troy Grantham, both 12 and about the same age as their grandfathers when the Germans invaded Poland _ became fast friends.
“Our fathers really took care of each other and shared the darkest hours of their lives,” Anna Eisen said. “You grow up differently when you don’t have relatives at holidays and when you have parents who are unsure how to be parents.”
Now, Eisen and Grantham have each other.
In late May, Grantham sat at Eisen’s kitchen table and wept as she read an e-mail from Salton.
“Even though it has been several weeks since you and Anna have found each other, I am still moved and astonished at our special and rare connection,” Salton wrote. “Never, in all the long and difficult years in the camps, did I dare hope that my friends and I might survive and be blessed with children and grandchildren who would live together in peace and freedom. …
“Your father was one of my closest and dearest friends and I feel blessed to have you and your family in our lives.”
This month, Salton flew to Texas to attend his grandson’s bar mitzvah and took the opportunity to meet his friend’s daughter.
As they hugged and sat down to talk, both struggled to control their emotions.
Salton shared his memories of the man he knew as Yitzak, the Hebrew word for Isaac. Salton was known as Lucek Salzman before changing his name when he moved to America.
Grantham told Salton about her mother, sister and brothers, all of whom live in Germany.
Salton asked softly what year Grantham’s father passed away.
“He died in August of 1991,” she said.
Salton nodded and reflected on his sadness that he and Waks never found each other.
“My friend isn’t here and we can’t embrace,” Salton said. “But he’s here because you are here.”
Bobby Ross Jr. has covered religion since 1999. He can be reached at bross(at)ap.org. LOAD-DATE: August 20, 2004
GRAPHIC: AP Photos NY355-358 of Aug. 17