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A Friendship Lost and Found, Decades After the Holocaust

The daughters of two survivors unlock secrets that are liberating as well as painful, leading to the next-best thing to a reunion.

August 22, 2004|Bobby Ross Jr. | Associated Press Writer

SOUTHLAKE, Texas — 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 teenager.

She 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 the 76-year-old Salton remembered him. The two had been together in 10 Nazi concentration camps, he said.

"He was my friend."

*

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.

The teens were beaten, starved and forced to wear yellow Stars of David on their shirts to identify them as Jews. They were among a handful of friends who gave one another the will to survive.

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.

"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 reared children who had no grandparents, no aunts, uncles or cousins -- because they had been executed.

Salton and Waks set about rebuilding their lives and putting the Holocaust behind them. They lost touch.

While their children were growing up, neither talked much about his Holocaust experience. But their despair was impossible to miss.

"Our dad was sad," said Miriam Grantham, 42, one of four children 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 who might take him away. He never opened up about the agony he endured.

"He would just cry and mention his family, but he wouldn't talk about things like that," Grantham said.

Salton also was determined not to dwell on what had happened. He wanted to protect his three children from the brutal details. Besides, he had moved on.

He served in the U.S. Army and met Ruth, his wife of 51 years. He 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," said Eisen, who was named after a grandmother she never knew. "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. 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 last year.

Even before the book was printed, Eisen and Margaret Walsh, the book's editor, made a surprising discovery: Walsh's late father was among a handful of young American soldiers who liberated Wobbelin.

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, and the ex-prisoner got to see it.

The experience was emotional, Margaret Walsh said. "It was kind of amazing because it kind of brought my dad back."

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 being built not far from Eisen's home. Eisen is membership chairwoman of Congregation Beth Israel.

As the conversation continued, Eisen asked where the caller was from.

"Germany," replied the woman, Miriam Grantham, who came to the United States after marrying a U.S. soldier. "My mother lives in Germany and my father was from Poland."

That's where her own father was from, Eisen said, and the two women quickly learned that both fathers had been held in Nazi concentration camps.

"Well, what was your family name?" Eisen asked.

"Waks," Grantham replied.

"God, I know that name," Eisen said.

*

George Salton recognized the face immediately when his daughter showed him a black-and-white photograph of Grantham's father, who had died in 1991.

When Eisen called Grantham back, both sobbed. They had lived minutes apart for years -- Grantham in the nearby community of Hurst -- yet never connected.

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