Interviewed on 2nd March 2015 by A Riffat

Joan Salter was born in Brussels, Belgium, on 15 February 1940. After fleeing Nazi persecution, Joan was sent to America by her mother. She travelled by ship as part of a programme in which children persecuted by the Nazi regime were being sent to temporarily live in the United States. Joan later had a difficult reunion with her parents, after having spent so long apart .

Joan’s interview highlights her personal feeling and thoughts towards faith as well as what it felt like to be a part of a Jewish community before the Holocaust. Joan also discusses her feelings towards faith today and whether the Holocaust affected her relationship with her faith. Therefore, the interview also explores Joan’s experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust as she also talks about her experiences in her homeland and then later in her host nation.

Q. Did your family practice Judaism?

A. ‘Okay, now from what I understand, my grandparents in Tarnow would have been traditional in that they would have been Orthodox and many of the extended family were Hasidim. However, I understand they were tolerant because two of their children as young adults were members of the Communist party. So, Judaism in that environment in Tarnow would have been a way of life, however, they were not extreme Orthodox. My mother’s parents, that’s my grandparents I’m talking about now, in Warsaw, would have been the same thing, I have a photo of my grandfather and he is wearing a hat and a Kippah. However, he’s wearing normal Polish, you know, a suit and tie and whatnot. Now, my understanding, although my parents wouldn’t talk very much about their life, they both moved to Western Europe, and mainly lived in Paris for most of the late twenties and thirties. They were very integrated, they mixed with non-Jews as well as Jews, and the impression I get is that they, in effect, did not practice the religion. They did not keep the religion at all post war, but I think that was on the philosophical level of, God has forsaken me, so I’m forsaking him. Towards the end of their lives, well, probably they were in their fifties, they did join a synagogue and my mother was very involved with the Jewish committee and my father started going regularly again. This was more of a comfort of being with people whose practises were yours. My parents still cooked bacon, my mother didn’t go to a kosher butcher, but we did celebrate the festivals. And as I said, towards the end of their lives the synagogue became an important support system for them’.

Q. How religious did you feel growing up?

A. ‘I had this conflict between two different Jewish cultures. My family in America were Jewish, they were Reform Jews and I would go to religion school there. And the attitude was very much, we are Americans who happen to be Jewish. It was a very, I was going to say English, but a very American type of service. It was all in English and I did go to religion school. Coming to England when I was seven and a half, my parents, as I said, were completely, you know, they were Jewish because when you’re a Polish Jew, you’re a Jew sort of thing. But the religion, really did not play a part in their lives, but because they were so terrified of the outsider, they sent me to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school, with a completely different cultural. So of course, as a young child you know, there’s a lot of conflict there but you absorbed that. I remember I was walking somewhere and I bought an ice cream and as I was eating it I suddenly realised it was not kosher for Pesach and I realised that I didn’t get struck by lightning. So, and then I went backwards and forwards between these two cultures and somehow mentally I sort of-- it was like I put on a different coat when I was in America and when I was in England.

However, at seventeen I went to Israel and I was at an institute for youth’s leaders. I was the first one from a non-Zionist organisation, I was from the Association of Jewish Youth. Anyway, so there were all levels, there was the Bnei Akiva at one level and then there was the Hashomer. And I would mix with all of them and one of the Bnei Akiva lot-- at the weekends we were supposed to go on to a kibbutz which all the youth movements had at that time. And I was the only non-affiliated so I went to different kibbutzes, so one week I was at the Hashomer, where they were all living together and, and you know, tending the fields and God knows what. Then, and I think it must have been Simchat Torah, I went to the Bnei Akiva one, which was somewhere in-- it wouldn’t have been the Negev, but it was down Ashkelon way or whatnot. And I arrived there, sort of before the holiday started and it was fascinating because it was Orthodox but because they were farming and everything the women were wearing shorts and they just looked like normal kibbutzim and then as the-- I think it was over Shabbat and Simchat Torah, as the holiday came in they all started changing. And I remember we were sitting on the grass as Shabbat or whatever came in and I absent-mindedly was plucking the grass and one of them said to me very, very nicely, ‘It’s Shabbat you mustn’t tear’, you see and having had the ultra-Orthodox upbringing I immediately knew what he meant you see. Then it was the Simchat Torah and they had a yeshiva on the kibbutz and we were told as women we could go up on the roof and look down on this. Right, we’re all nicely dressed arms covered, you know, long skirts and whatnot and we’re up on the roof, looking down. And I’m looking down on what could have been sixteenth century Polish yeshiva’.

Q. So, from your younger days did you have any Jewish artefacts that survived?

A. ‘Oh right, well, my parents didn’t have anything, my mother, she did-- actually it’s interesting, whether she did it as a child I don’t think we kept the Shabbat, but when I was older they did keep the Shabbat and so she has brass candle sticks and a very cheap brass menorah, and I have those now, yes. But no, we didn’t, we didn’t have and the irony is my American father was-- he had come over-- actually I think he was born in America but his father had come over from Russia and when he died it was fascinating, they as I said they were very strict Reform Jews, when he died, apparently he had the family Torah, which I had never seen, you know, because they were these sophisticated Americans and it was donated to an Orthodox synagogue and I remember feeling resentful because that was, you know-- I would have liked to have had that because they were as much my parents as my other parents. So, there was this-- it was not until the seventies and eighties when I started going back and researching my background that the-- although the religion had gone, the need to be part of the people was important and actually my father had tallits and whatnot and I’ve kept those after he died. I’ve got his tallits and his, funny enough he never laid the whatever it’s called, but he actually had them, which was fascinating, yeah’.

Q. Do you feel religious today?

A. ‘I feel Jewish, I’m a member of a Liberal synagogue which suits my, philosophy of Judaism. I’m not religious in the traditional sense. When young kids ask me about my Judaism, I’m very careful because I don’t feel I should step on their religious backgrounds or whatnot and I say, well, you know, my view of God is not of an old man sitting on a throne deciding who should do what or whatnot, so of course from the traditional Jewish background they would say I’m not religious as a matter of fact I’m outside the religion. The traditions hold me but in a distant way, I mean like for Pesach, I’m actually not doing a Seder, I did for many years when my children were growing up and whatnot, but my younger daughter’s not in the least bit religious and I would have done it for the grandson but they’re not bothering, so I’m going to the Seder at my synagogue. And for me it’s acknowledging my background more than what most people would look upon as being religious’.

Q. Is there any day in the year that you feel is the most religious to you?

A. ‘Well, Yom Kippur of course is to most Jews, I usually do go to synagogue on Yom Kippur but very interesting my husband is very irreligious, completely, I joined the synagogue nearly thirty years ago it was more or less when my parents were dying that I joined the Liberal synagogue as an acknowledgement of who I was and actually when the children were growing up we really didn’t keep anything, but of course my parents we would go there for Rosh Hashanah dinner and whatnot. And now both my husband and I we go to the Kol Nidre service because in our synagogue they actually play the cello, they always have a cello soloist playing the Kol Nidre, so we go to the Kol Nidre service. Sometimes I do go on Yom Kippur, and as I said it’s as much of being with my community as feeling any spiritual, spiritual is the word, any spiritual up living’.

Q. Do you think you will have a religious funeral when you die?

A. ‘I will have the Liberal one, because I’m part of that community, we will probably be cremated which of course is a sin but it’s very common amongst the Liberals. So yes, I will be buried within what some of us call the Jewish community.