JOAN Salter was born in Belgium in the February of 1940 to Polish Jewish parents and was three months old when Belgium was invaded by the Germans.
Her father was taken. Her mother carried Joan and her sister down through Paris, Vicii and eventually over the mountains into Spain. Joan was then sent to America to be fostered by a family where her name and background were changed.
Her paternal parents survived the war and in 1947 she was reunited with them in England.
Organised by the students’ union’s History Society, Joan visited the university to share her experiences.
Do you find it a cathartic experience to find out about the experiences your family went through?
It’s almost as if it happened to somebody else. It’s very interesting as occasionally there are two survivors speaking in the same room and I’ll listen to someone else’s experience and I find I just start crying. Yet when I speak about mine it’s as though I’m speaking about someone else’s. I think it’s a wall we put up as we’re not going to get upset about it. I was well in my 40s when I started looking and it was a journey to move on. I met many other child survivors as the older survivors just patronised us as they said we were only children. When we spoke to each other, it was like sharing the same emotions and understanding. That was very important in the process of taking it all on board.
Because you weren’t put through the concentration camps and you were a child, do you think you get approached differently about your experiences in the war?
Yes, people say ‘oh well you don’t remember it’ like it never affected us and a lot of the child survivors were marginalised as if it didn’t really affect them. Even though they’d lost their parents they’d lived in a supposedly ‘model camp’. We have our own organisation because we understand that our lives were turned upside down. Some of our members actually were in the camps. One of the older ones who was in Hungary was 15 when they were invaded so she actually was in Auschwitz.
During the war, from what you’ve learnt from your parents, at what point did they realise that as a Jewish family, you could be in danger?
My parents were both Polish and Poland had had a lot of problems with Germany and I think my father’s instinct was that things would be dangerous. Even before I was born, they were living in Paris before it had been invaded, but his instinct told him that France would be invaded and he thought Belgium would stay neutral. So
my father really realised, even in the late 30s, that Hitler was going to get his own way. Because the minute Poland was invaded, there were the mass deportations to the camps, there were letters going backwards and forwards so people did know what was going on in Poland. But he thought Belgium would be safe, so that’s why they went there.
Do you think it’s important that the younger generations learn about what happened to you and other survivors from the war?
I think the one point of having a survivor is that they actually see a human being it happened to. They can relate, especially when I speak in school and it’s a child’s journey and I talk about the problems with my sister, which some of them encounter themselves. When they hear about it they can empathise more. Very sadly after the war when they first started talking they said never again. But we see it happening everywhere and I think it’s very important to see how quickly ordinary people can turn into monsters and perhaps, if even a few of the people we speak to if it makes a difference, for examples bullies who show prejudice because somebody is different, then it has served a purpose because it’s the same thing. It’s the fear of someone who is different and stereotyping. It’s unfortunate human nature that those who are insecure in their own skin need to have a go at somebody else to say, well you see how much more important I am than they are, and that can so quickly escalate.
Do you still keep in contact with your American family you adopted you when you traveled from Lisbon to the USA?
My American parents died over 25 years ago but I have a foster sister and we’ve always looked upon each other as sisters because I did go back and forwards between the two families. When he children got married, I went over and nowadays with facebook and everything we can keep in touch. So, she and I have a close relationship.
Did you find it difficult to leave them once you had heard you had maternal parents in England?
It was completely surreal. When you’re brought up in a family, also in those days adoption was a stigma, I don’t think I was aware that they weren’t my family. I had vague understanding and I had a sister who would come and visit. I have vague memories of it but as a child you just think they are dreams. So when I was told that I didn’t belong to that family I came to these strange people. My mother and I didn’t even have a common language, they were completely impoverished, very highly strung and nervous. In another book that someone else has written about me, she actually says it’s like going to Mars, as it was. It was just a different world and my parents had lost everyone and my father did talk about it but in a way, the holocaust just wasn’t talked about. There was a stigma and we didn’t want to be called foreigners, we wanted to be ‘normal’. In that way, it was sublimated for around 20-30 years and this is a very common experience amongst the child survivors.
Did your maternal parents ever go back to any of the cities they took refuge in?
Eastern Europe was under the Iron Curtain and the one member of either of our family that did survive was my aunt. She survived in Russia and went back to Poland. Actually, in 1955 she had married a camp survivor and they had a young child. In that year, they were allowed to Poland and her husband had an older child from a former marriage, his wife died in a camp, who lived in Paris.
They came out to Paris and my mother would not go. For my father, this was traumatic that this was the only member of his family. So he dragged me unwittingly to Paris because I had spent a lot of time in America and in the 50s, America had an absolute phobia of communism and as a child I absorbed that and my aim was to go and live in America. My father takes me to Paris to meet my communist aunt off the train and I was absolute terrified. I honestly thought the CIA would know I had a communist aunt and I would never get back in to America. I remember the scene so well. My father and his sister, who was completely broken and in their 40s, came out with this tiny little boy and their possessions were wrapped up in a sheet, just like images you see of Russia. We went to the sons apartment and my father wanted them to come to England and the two of them had such a row after all they had been through. My father got up, pulled me out, we got a taxi and we came to the train, came back to England and that was that.
Later on in life, my mother was able to go Paris but they never went to Poland. I went to Poland for the first time about ten years ago to the town where he came from and I actually now go every year. They have a ceremony in June, the week that most of their Jews were deported, which takes place in the woods and in different parts of the town. I go nearly every year. I went to the camp, Belzitz, where my family from Tarnof should have gone. And I’ve also been to Warsaw but it was badly damaged and there was virtually no documentation or anything. I went to Triblinco which was the camp outside and it was like me reclaiming my family even though I hadn’t been born in Poland and letting them know I still remember them.
Do you have any children or grandchildren you tell your experiences to?
I have two daughters and when my parents were still alive it was very interesting because when I got married in the early years, my parents with this harsh accent and my children would go to them. The holocaust wasn’t part of my life that much at that stage. My older daughter is much more family and background orientated and she is very interested. My younger daughter really amazed me when she was at Reading University, she asked me to come and speak about it and I was absolutely amazed because she isn’t that interested in being Jewish. My 10-year-old grandson’s grandfather also came from Vienna as a refugee so he has that background. We don’t make a big thing about it though.