On January 15, Anna Salton Eisen watched as four members of Congregation Beth Israel, the synagogue she helped found in 1998, were held hostage for 11 hours. This was not the first time Eisen had close ties to an antisemitic tragedy—her parents are both Holocaust survivors and her son attended the University of Virginia where Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally occurred—but the attack strengthened her conviction that “the Holocaust itself was not enough to end antisemitism.”
A strong defendant of the importance of Holocaust education, Salton Eisen was determined to learn her parents’ stories—particularly that of her father, who was in ten camps throughout his three years of imprisonment. Her upcoming book, Pillar of Salt, set to release in April details her experience learning about her father’s life through oral testimony and by visiting the sites of his trauma in Poland.
Now, as the hostage situation at Salton Eisen’s synagogue reminded the nation of the importance of fighting antisemitism, Deborah E. Lipstadt’s confirmation hearing to be the nation’s next special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism will occur February 8. Salton Eisen and Diane D’Costa, a former University of Virginia student, will be in attendance as Lipstadt’s guests.
Salton Eisen speaks with Moment’s intern Bella Druckman.
What makes Colleyville and its neighboring regions so special?
It’s a suburb in the Dallas area, it’s easily accessible, it has a great housing market, really excellent public schools; it was a good, safe place to live and have a family close to major cities and both coasts.
I moved here in 1984 when I was 24, and there really was not a Jewish community. I had to drive 30 miles in any direction to find a synagogue. When you live in a place, and there’s really not a Jewish community, and you don’t see people from the synagogue at the grocery store or on your street, then it can feel very isolating. It was also in the Bible Belt, so nothing was open on Sunday and a lot of social activities revolved around the church community.
So can you tell us why your family helped found the synagogue?
When I was living in Texas as an adult, I eventually confronted my father and said, “I don’t even know what your real name is, I don’t know anything about you. What were you in? And who are my relatives? And where are you from?” And so, that led us to go on the first of two trips to Poland.
When I came back from Poland, I realized I had visited a country full of empty synagogues with no Jews; and then here, I was living in a community with Jews and no synagogue. So I came back and decided that I was not going to live in what I call “in the middle,” which is how my father used to describe how you stayed safe in the camp. You marched in the middle so you were less likely to get struck by a Gestapo or Nazi and when you lined up for soup, you lined up in the middle, because at the front, maybe you got the watery part at the back or maybe there was nothing left.
I felt compelled to explore my Judaism, so I started studying more and became somewhat more observant. I became more involved with Holocaust remembrance activities, from being a docent at the museum to doing the interviews for the Spielberg Shoah Foundation.
The building of Congregation Beth Israel will undergo months of remodeling and construction. Where will the community pray until then?
We have a community center that is letting us come in on Saturday morning, and we have a Methodist church that is hosting us on Friday nights, which is actually a church where we met before we had a building. If my father were alive, he would think this was remarkable; in Poland, he wouldn’t imagine that a church would invite a Jewish congregation.
So it’s really been affirming to see how much empathy and unity and compassion there is in the greater community. I had neighbors during the siege text me, email me, call me and say. “We are activating the prayer chain. Everyone is praying for you.” People told me at Catholic churches, at non-denominational churches, they were holding services. I got emails that the Canasta Club was praying. I don’t even play canasta. But it was really wonderful.
Can you tell me about your rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker?
He is a very learned rabbi. He takes his studies and his knowledge and what he does for our congregation very seriously. He is gracious and kind, a sincere person and a good friend. I’ve known him for 16 years.
I picked him up on his first visit and I remember I went to the airport and I said, “Rabbi,” and he said, “How did you know it was me?” And I said, “Well, the yarmulke kind of gave you away. You’re in Texas now.”
Everyone has talked about how during the live stream, you could hear him using that calming, soothing voice. And he’s used that on me, and all the congregants. That’s just how he is. It didn’t surprise me that even through the ordeal, he remained compassionate with empathy, tried to understand and communicate with the attacker.
Is it true that he is leaving?
He’s been here 16 years. I don’t think anybody ever expected that he would spend his entire career at our synagogue. When he came to us, it was a big thing because we’re a small congregation. We didn’t have a staff; we have an all-purpose room, but we don’t have a separate social hall. He was fresh out of school, and he said “I’m going to take this on, I’m going to learn.” He made us a congregation.
So I think that the time was right. As a friend and as a rabbi, there’s part of me that really wants to say “Please don’t go.” But it’s like when you have an adult child going to college, and you have to say: The door is open, get out there. You’ve earned the right now to take on the world and go find the next great thing. I don’t think there are rabbis who spend their whole career at a small congregation like ours. So we were really lucky that we had him this long.
You have such a tight-knit community. How is everyone moving forward with the trauma and trying to alleviate it?
Well, I think we’re just at the beginning. We’re not back in our own building, and returning to our building will be a big step. We’ve taken the Torahs out and when we can bring the Torahs back in, in some kind of special ceremony, I would gather. But just to have our first Shabbat, or first Torah service, or first Havdalah. I think that people are still somewhat numb about it, trying to move on and not think about it. But I think over time you process it in bits and pieces.
I’ve gotten emotional at the grocery store. I’m just thinking, I’m glad I didn’t see anyone I know because if I did, I’d probably lose it. But it’s just hard to try not to think about it and then when you do, a wave of emotion comes over you, remembering how scared we were. These are people we love and their lives were in danger for so long.
Can you tell me why, at this particular moment in your life, you decided to write Pillar of Salt?
I actually wrote the manuscript a long time ago, around 2014. And I hadn’t done anything with it. When I came back from Poland, at first I wondered, “What do I do with this?” It was a hard transition because I wasn’t there just as a tourist. I was there because this was my family history and legacy. If I just move on and forget it, it ends with me. And that’s not the purpose of going back and learning my father’s story.
I didn’t set out to write it for personal therapeutic reasons, I set out to write it because I thought, this is another way to know my father, and to understand the Holocaust, outside of his direct testimony, and that for people who had read his memoir, The 23rd Psalm, even for them, to be able to know what was it like for him, to go back to his town to go to the ghetto, to go to Belzec, and see the train tracks that his parents road on the last mile before they were murdered in the gas chambers. So it wasn’t just about me, it was also about his experience.
Growing up not knowing, I started to discover that I had a different vocabulary. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how much survivors really didn’t talk about the Holocaust. I meet so many children of survivors my age that don’t know anything. So I really feel compelled to pass this down to the third generation.
What do you hope readers take with them from Pillar of Salt?
I hope that by sharing my story, maybe they just get a little bit of understanding about what it was like. A lot of us grow up in families where there’s pain, and where there are secrets and we have to have compassion, not just for ourselves, but maybe our parents, our family members, our children. And then by opening yourself up to understand someone else’s story, it may hopefully change you and become your story as well.
What does Holocaust education look like in Colleyville right now?
I don’t know if you read the story about what happened at the Carroll Independent School District—they have a law in Texas that says if you have one version of something, then you have to have an alternate version of something, and a curriculim director asked that the district provide alternative education for the Holocaust.
But I can tell you that my father has spoken in the Southlake schools, his book was taught in the schools, I taught in the schools, I spoke to teachers, educators, students, I meet people now who say, “Oh we read your father’s memoir.” We were going to speak at the middle school 15 years ago, so they were always welcoming to it. I think they partnered with the Dallas Holocaust Museum.
But what happened, in this case, was unfortunate, and shows that we need to have some guidelines for what is acceptable Holocaust education and curriculum and what’s not, as far as revisionism or denial. Let’s address this and use it as an opportunity for improvement.
What do you think your presence, along with Diane D’Costa’s, will add to Lipstadt’s confirmation?
I hope people realize that this touches people’s lives. I read Diane’s testimony from Charlottesville, it’s very moving, and very terrible what she went through. Because my son graduated from University of Virginia and I visited there many times, I didn’t have to imagine. I am familiar with the lawn that she lives on, the statue that was surrounded by the protesters and the people from the “Unite the Right” rally. I think her testimony and her presence there will speak to the fact that this should not be occurring
What I would say to Ted Cruz if I had the chance to meet with him, which is what I hope to do, is that my father was liberated by American soldiers and he came to the United States and served in the U.S. Army and had a career at the Pentagon. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the American soldiers of the 82nd airborne who liberated him. I think if these American soldiers would see people in our country walking around chanting Nazi slogans, doing Heil Hitler, wearing the swastika that so many Americans gave their lives for, I think it should not be allowed. It’s time that we have a voice and this is taken seriously.
If Lipstadt is appointed, how do you think she’ll change the state of antisemitism in the United States?
Through policy, through interacting with other organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, through looking at what the laws are addressing the issues, being spokesperson here and as well as abroad.
I don’t know what the future holds but I feel like her appointment is an important step. This position has been unfilled for too long. She’s brilliant, as a historian and as a scholar, and she knows so much about antisemitism. We need her to create a unified team to address these challenges.