My experiences in early life have taught me that individuals really can make a difference.

- Joan Salter

Joan Salter was born Fanny Zimetbaum in February 1940, in Belgium. Her parents were Polish Jews and had moved to Brussels from Paris in 1939 as they thought it would be a safer place to live. Joan also had an older half-sister from her mother’s first marriage.  Joan has no memories of her parents or her life in Brussels, but later in life her parents were able to tell her what happened at this time, and this has been supported by Joan’s own research.

When the Nazi’s invaded Belgium, Joan’s father was one of the many Jewish men who were rounded up and imprisoned. Her father was sent to a prison in France but managed to escape and return to his family in Brussels. Worried that the authorities in Brussels would discover Joan’s father, her mother reported to the Belgian police and asked permission to travel to Paris, claiming her husband had been deported. Joan, her mother, and half-sister stayed with Joan’s aunts in Paris and Joan’s father shortly followed and stayed hidden with a cousin. After this Joan’s family lived in a safe house run by people from the French resistance. The resistance managed to smuggle Joan’s father out of Nazi occupied France, but Joan, her mother and half-sister all stayed in Paris for another year.

Joan’s mother was required to register with the local police every week. One day in June 1942 Joan’s mother brought her two children to the police station to register. It was here that a police officer warned her that the next day Nazi’s would begin rounding up Jewish women and children in Paris. The next day at 5am the three were smuggled into the free zone of France hiding underneath laundry in the back of a laundry van. They joined Joan’s father in small village near the Spanish border. Shortly afterwards, Joan’s father was captured again and sent to a camp on the border of Switzerland, but with the help of Joan’s mother managed to bribe the guards and escape over the mountains to Barcelona.

In November 1942, Joan’s mother and her two children started the same journey over the mountains into Spain. The journey was hard and dangerous, and Joan’s crying had become a danger to the rest of the group attempting to hide from Nazi police. Her mother was warned by their guide that she may have to suffocate her child if she could not calm her. Her mother managed to calm her but the three were unfortunately captured at the Spanish border. Joan and her mother were imprisoned, and Joan’s half-sister was sent to live in a convent. Joan’s mother later told her of the kindness shown to her by locals who would bring them food.

It was in the prison that Joan’s mother learnt of a scheme that was offering children who were refugees American visas. In June 1943, Joan’s mother said goodbye to her children and sent them to America, where she knew they would be safe. Joan was only three years old. The two girls went to separate foster families in America and Joan acquired her new name. Joan remembers her adoptive family fondly, who treated her as their own daughter.

After the war, in 1947, Joan’s adoptive parents told her of her true identity and that her parents had survived the war. At seven years old Joan travelled to England to be with her birth parents. She had no memory of them and remembers this as a challenging adjustment.

Joan has been a friend and supporter of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum for many years and continues to give her testimony today.  Joan’s beginning in life and the story of her escape from Europe is a key story of survival and continues to provide resonance today.

The Collection

The museum houses documents, objects, and photographs donated by Joan. It is our privilege to care for these artefacts and ensure they are available for future generations. The museum's collection provides vital, tangible, evidence of the Holocaust. We are committed to ensuring we have everything we need to continue to tell our speaker's stories into the future. Please find a selection of objects below from the Joan Salter Collection, you can also search our collections for further objects and information.