salaAs the days of Holocaust survivors are coming to an end (many are in their 70’s and 80’s) stories like Sala’s need to be told. It’s a story of survival, of bravery and hanging on to something tangible against the horrors of the concentration camps and beyond. It’s about a woman that just did not give up. It’s in stark contrast to yesterday’s article about a woman’s need for fame and adulation and how she debased herself at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 

The following story about Sala Garncarz Kirschner is one of courage, bravery and survival

In 1991, Sala was due to undergo heart surgery and she did something that was deeply personal and painful (and long overdue) Since her liberation from the concentration camps, Sala had shielded her children from her experiences. She never spoke about her Polish Jewish family’s experiences during World War II. On that day in 1991, she gave her daughter letters that would reveal Sala’s pain, the truth about the concentration camps and her efforts to hold on to something tangible that kept her going.

The site “Letters to Sala” says:

One summer day that year, she approached her daughter, Ann, carrying a red cardboard box that had once contained a “Spill and Spell” game. She held it out, saying, “You should have this.” Within the box was a small, worn brown leather portfolio stuffed with letters, postcards, and scraps of paper—an amazing array of Polish, German, and Yiddish writing, some of it barely legible, tiny and cramped, some of it beautiful calligraphy. The postcards were covered with stamp-size Hitlers and thick “Z” stamps. “These are my letters from the war,” Sala told her daughter.

That afternoon, Sala began to fill in the missing pieces of her history. She was taken from home when she was 16 and survived five years in seven different Nazi forced labor camps. Saving the letters became inextricably linked with saving her life. The letters were not mere pieces of paper: they were the people she loved, friends and family waiting for her return. She risked her life to preserve the letters, hiding them during line-ups, handing them off to friends, throwing them under a building, even burying them, but always managing somehow to take them with her from camp to camp.

Liberated in 1945, Sala came to the United States as a war bride, and hid her papers in a closet. Five years of her life were also hidden until the day she revealed the existence of more than 300 letters, photographs, and documents.

Sala’s story is, above all, a story of life and one young woman’s way of seeing beyond years of horror. From her letters, we learn about friendship and love, Jewish life in occupied Poland, Nazi labor camps, the intensely human need to rebuild life after the catastrophe of war, and the ability of words to give and sustain life.

Explore Salah’s life in Letters to Sala site which is part of the New York Public Library’s Online Exhibition Archive

Sala Garncarz Kirschner was born in Sosnowiec in southern Poland. In the fall of 1940, her sister Raizel was ordered to a Nazi labor camp, but Sala, at the age of 16, decided to take her sister’s spot instead. What was meant to be six months turned into five years of slavery. Unaware of whether any members of her family had survived the Holocaust, Sala headed back to Sosnowiec, but found no trace of her loved ones. Suddenly, after traveling and searching for seven months after being freed, Sala received a letter from Raizel. Sala’s granddaughter Caroline, shared the translation of the letter’s contents on Reddit

Karlstad, December 6, 1945

Dearest newly found little sister,

My hands are trembling. I am jumping around, going crazy: I am delirious. I don’t know where to begin. So my intuition concerning you was correct, after all, and you are alive for us! My mind is frantic, confused. December 6th, 1945 will be a memorable, festive one for us, for today I received a letter from you, my dearest one. I can’t believe my eyes; it happened just as I was feeling abandoned and resigned. I did not doubt that you were alive, but that you who knows how to manage in life would not send any news about yourself? Why doesn’t she let us hear from her, I thought to myself. Forgive me Sala for writing so haphazardly. Oh God, what goes on in my mind now!

Well, my dear, I read your letter ten times. My tears covered up your words, so others had to help me read them. By sheer coincidence, we were able to learn of our great joy, that you exist!

Dearest one. As I write, I am already anxious to know when our first letter will reach you. I am happy that you are well, and that you did not wander around. We, on the other hand, lived through a great deal but in spite of everything, we survived somehow. Now I have to double my effort to get well quickly, so that when I am healthy and strong, I could see you, looking well too. Finally, after all our suffering and horrible ordeal, after six years of horror and separation, we should be able to hug you tight, close to our heart.

Sala, I do not wish to, and will not write to you about our experiences, because no matter how much I write, it would not measure up to the reality of it all. I want to talk to you, face to face, about everything. When will that be, Sala? Speed it up, as much as you can. Don’t delay! I am doing the same. May God help us achieve our great goal.

Even while we had no news about you, I kept staring at the door as if I knew for certain that you are here. What is there to say now when we know that we really have you? Everything minute is going to be an eternity. We keep on talking about you all the time.

To try and find you, I wrote to Czechoslovakia, to the administration in Sosnowiec, to Stockholm, and to Warsaw, hoping your name were listed somewhere. All to no avail. My heart ached that there was no trace of you. And here you appeared again on earth’s surface! Hold to it fast, fast, so you could recapture at least a bit of your lost young life.

I will not write any more now, and will end by taking leave of you, dearest, and kiss you 1000 times; your sister, who longs from the depth of her heart to see you and to embrace you. We shall never again lose contact with each other, never!

My eyes are turned toward heaven, hoping that we will succeed in being reunited. Do whatever you can and we shall do the same. I am not really writing with ink, but with my tears.

Good bye Sala. Live!!!

Explore Salah’s life in Letters to Sala site which is part of the New York Public Library’s Online Exhibition Archive