Walking along the Arts Quad the week of April 17 to April 21, a thousand small white flags peppered the grass. Upon closer inspection, these flags are an installation in remembrance of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, which occurred from the evening of April 17 to the evening of April 18.
As part of the memorial, Cornell Hillel brought about a poignant and memorable event on Wednesday, as Mary Salton, who was born in Vienna in 1929 and escaped Nazi Austria as a child, visited to share her experience with a packed auditorium in Phillips Hall 101.
The event featured an interview video between Salton and Howard Erlich, a former professor and administrator at Ithaca College, who facilitated Salton’s retelling of her childhood memories during the Second World War. After the video, Salton answered questions from Cornell community members about her experiences.
Salton lost a grandfather and several aunts, uncles and cousins during the war, the large majority of whom were killed in concentration camps. Only one of her mother’s four siblings survived the Holocaust. Salton said she does not refer to herself as a Holocaust survivor due to the fact that she herself was not imprisoned in a concentration camp.
During the event, Maya Weisberg ’26, chair of Jewish education for Cornell Hillel, shared with the audience that this year marks the 85th anniversary of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 13, 1938.
In one chilling recollection, Salton shared her memory of watching Hitler’s convoy of cars enter Vienna in 1938 during an outing with her nanny when she was an eight-year-old schoolgirl. When they encountered crowds of fellow Austrians cheering on the Nazi entrance into the city, Salton described her nanny as being disgusted.
“[My nanny proclaimed,] ‘They’re just like a bunch of sheep,’” Salton recalled.
When asked about the incident by a student, Salton noted that she does not know whether the crowds knew what was going to happen later in the war.
“There was [the Great] Depression in Europe [which refers to the severe economic recession that was partly brought about by World War I and its aftermath],” Salton said. “And there was a stunning parade. [Hitler] brought soldiers in, they were doing lockstep and music and so forth. And why not cheer?”
The event that prompted Salton’s family’s exodus, as she called it, was in June 1938, when Nazi officers had come looking for Salton’s father at his law office. With swift thinking, her father directed them to an office across the street and promptly left.
“They walked in and he walked out,” Salton said. “He never came home again. He went to a friend’s house and called my mother and said, ‘Pack a bag. Take your passports. We’re leaving for Italy.’ So that afternoon he got the passports and he got a visa and boat tickets to Greece.”
Salton, an only child, fled Austria with her mother and father that night.
“My mother was absolutely crying the whole time because she had left her family,” Salton said. “We had left everything.”
Salton’s family fled to Switzerland in 1938. It took the family 10 years to get a visa from the United States, which they obtained in 1948.
When she arrived in the U.S., Salton’s first step was to attend Hunter College, where she majored in modern European languages before eventually attending graduate school at Columbia.
“I came from a family where everybody had been educated,” Salton said. “My father had a law degree from the University of Vienna, and I think in his generation actually everybody had a Ph.D. of some sort or they were doctors. My father actually wanted to go to medical school. But in Vienna there was a so-called Numerus clausus — there were only so many Jews allowed in medical school… And I actually also wanted to go to medical school, but when I came to this country, they told me that it was very hard for women to get into medical school.”
Salton’s husband, Gerard Salton, was a professor in the computer science department at Cornell who was born in Nuremberg, Germany, and fled with his family during World War II. Their two children also attended the University.
When asked if she has faith in humanity, Salton was ambivalent.
“I think history repeats itself and we never learn from history,” Salton said.
To round out the talk, Salton expressed her feelings on the best way to honor and commemorate Yom HaShoah as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles.
“There are second-generation people who are interested in keeping the thread alive, and I’m hoping they will continue it,” Salton said.
Correction, April 26, 2:26 p.m.: A previous version of this article misspelled Howard Erlich’s name and stated that Mary Salton attended Harvard University graduate school, which was incorrect. The Sun regrets these errors, and the article has been corrected.