UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133B Homepage > 133B Book Essays Index page > Student essay
Words of Survival
on: Ann Kirschner, Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story
by Kelsey Tinkham
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Kelsey Tinkham
I am a fourth year Global Studies major with an emphasis in Europe. I have a strong interest in history and how it affects the world in which we live in today, especially World War II history. Traveling to Munich last summer also peaked my interest in German history. I chose to read Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story because I was interested in learning about labor camps, a subject I did not know much about. Also, Holocaust survival stories have always fascinated me (and horrified me when I think about how many people were not as fortunate), because it seems as if each story is a miracle. The survivors always accredit their survival to a mixture of luck and help from others.
Abstract (back to top)
In Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story, Ann Kirschner writes about her mother's experience in the labor camps during the Holocaust by piecing together the 350 letters her mother saved. Kirschner was not aware of the existence of these letters nor her mother's Holocaust story until Sala gave her a box of these letters and photos and offered to answer any question on the eve of heart surgery when Sala was 67. Her letters and answers revealed to Kirschner that Sala Garncarz was a 16-year-old when she was summoned for six weeks in a labor camp, and instead spent five years as a slave in seven labor camps. In this book, Ann Kirschner accredits these letters and her relationships with friends and family to Sala's survival and endurance of years of slavery, fear, and despair. I prove this in my essay by describing the various relationships she maintained through letters and notes and how they gave her motivation to live despite the fatal penalty of keeping these letters.
Essay (back to top)
Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story tells the story Sala Garncarz, a Polish Jew from Sosnowiec who endured seven labor camps in five years in a network of Jewish slave labor camps known as Organization Schmelt. She reported to a summons to work in the labor camps at the age of 16, believing she would only work for six weeks. In these five years, Sala developed many relationships and maintained existing ones through correspondence by mail. After liberation, Sala arrived in the United States as a war bride, and never mentioned her experience to anyone. She broke her silence fifty-five years later to her daughter Ann by handing over her collection of 350 letters, photographs, and a diary. Ann Kirschner unravels the mystery of her mother’s Holocaust story and writes about Sala’s experience through the uncovered letters. Kirschner strategically uses these letters to claim that Sala’s relationships and patronages, maintained through their letters, enabled her to survive her five years in labor camps. She risked her life to keep these letters with her because they gave her motivation to live in the face of devastation and death. While Kirschner also admits that luck played a role in Sala’s survival, luck alone could not have kept her alive for that long and in those horrendous conditions.
While receiving and sending letters was allowed in the labor camps, the saving of letters and other personal items was strictly prohibited, but Sala guarded them with her life because they were a tangible connection to her family and friends. Organization Schmelt was an atypical Nazi network in the sense that it used Jewish labor for German construction projects and delivered mail to the Jewish laborers. Moses Merin, the head of the Jewish Council in Sosnowiec, worked with Albrecht Schmelt to provide Jewish labor for the organization, and required Jewish families to pay a heavy tax to become exempt from sending a family member to work in the labor camps. Sala’s family was among the poorest Jewish families and was the first to send family members in 1940. Letters to the Jewish laborers were sent through regular Reich mail because, for Merin and Schmelt, “it was good for business and good propaganda: a letter from a loved one meant that a person was alive and working” (Kirschner, 66). The letters were critical in continuing the influx of Jewish laborers; families would not send anyone if they thought they would be mistreated.
While prisoners enjoyed the privilege of mail, there were many restrictions. All letters needed to be written in German, and were censored. Worried her letters would not pass through the censor, Sala “tried to minimize her complaints about the food, the filth, and the constant fear of being called to the Bureau for punishment” when she wrote to her friends and family (Kirschner, 56). Also, prisoners were forbidden to keep letters and Sala “hid the letters during lineups, handed them to trusted friends, threw them under a building, even buried them under the ground.” If SS guards had uncovered them, Sala would have been severely punished, even killed, for keeping personal possessions. According to Kirschner, Sala risked her life to save these letters because “Sala’s letters were the individuals she loved, the friends and family who loved her.” She argues further that “the preservation of these written words…was directly and inextricably linked to saving her own life” (Kirschner 7). When outside mail delivery ended in the summer of 1943, their voices were silenced and Sala relied on her correspondence with her camp sisters for survival. Their birthday letters kept up hope that things would be better the next birthday.
Letters from her family were the most important to Sala and provided her the will to survive and served as reminders of her Jewish faith, but also filled her with despair and a longing to be with them. The youngest of eleven children, Sala was cherished by everyone in her family. She shared a special connection with her parents and two sisters, Blima and Raizel. In fact, it was Raizel who was summoned to work in the labor camps, but Sala did not think her weak, studious sister could survive in the labor camps. Sala took her sister’s place because she was more resilient and resourceful, and was also looking for a sense of adventure. Raizel, as the academic member of the family and only one that could write in German and Polish, took the role as family correspondent and wrote Sala as much as she could. In her letters, Raizel assured “her sister about the well-being of their large extended family” and also considered it her “duty to remind her sister of her responsibilities to her family, to her friends, and to God” (Kirschner, 53). Every time Sala received a letter from home, she could picture her family reading her mail in their small, crowded apartment and contributing questions and information to Raizel’s letters to Sala. Fridays were especially hard on Sala to be away from home, since she used to help her family clean and cook in preparation of the Sabbath before she left for the labor camps. This was when Sala’s loneliness and homesickness were at its worst, and she wrote in her journal, “Dear God, will Fridays always worry me so much when I am away from home?” (Kirschner, 44). If Sala did not write home often, Raizel “was quick to reproach her” and wrote to her, “If you don’t write, everything is lost” (Kirschner, 55). Despite the guilt and despair the letters contained, Sala cherished her connection with her family. When her family was split up after her parents were deported to Auschwitz and her sisters to another labor camp, her sisters kept up hope in their letters that their parents and other family members were still alive and well.
Sala’s correspondence with her childhood friends from Sosnowiec provided light conversation that kept up her spirits. While Raizel’s letters left Sala feeling guilty about their parents’ frail state, Sala “longed for the lightness of [her] exchanges with her friends, the occasional injection of gossip and trivia, their delightful irrelevancies” (Kirschner, 55-56). These casual letters were necessary to Sala because they distracted her from her daily life of minimal food, loneliness, crowded barracks, long work hours, and constant terror of being punished. Sala strived to keep her friendships alive for her own sanity. Even when she went home for just three days on her only vacation, she devoted a night to spend with her friends, where she did not want to talk about her life in the barracks but instead focused on their romances and silly gossip of Sosnowiec. These distractions helped Sala to stay positive and endure the camps.
Kirschner asserts that Sala’s relationship with her mentor Ala Gertner helped her to survive, because she provided her protection and helped her bear her initial painful parting from her family and homesickness. From their first meeting at the train station, Ala vowed to Sala’s mother to watch over and take care of Sala, and she kept her promise for as long as she possibly could. Sala adored Ala and marveled at “how different Ala was from the other women…and from anyone else she had ever known” (Kirschner, 34). Ala served as a mentor, mother, and big sister to Sala, educating her and giving her hope, and Sala became “Ala’s protégé” (Kirschner, 42). Ala’s position as an educated, assimilated Polish Jew secured her a job at the headquarters for the camp administration as a typist and translator, where she received privileges she shared with Sala. These included extra food and a private room for her and Sala.
When Ala found work with Moses Merin as a supervisor under Organization Schmelt back home, she still continued to teach Sala and be her mentor through her letters. Through her position, she was able to arrange a three-day vacation for Sala, and continuously worked to make conditions better for her. Sala wrote to her for advice on romances, and they exchanged stories of their love lives. Ala was always able to track Sala down when she moved camps, and wrote her letters until they day she was deported to Auschwitz. There, she became involved in the only Auschwitz uprising and was hanged three weeks before liberation. Unbeknownst of these occurrences, Sala looked forward to the possibility of Ala “informally adopting and educating Sala after the war” (Kirschner, 95).
Patronages by influential men and relationships with suitors also benefited Sala tremendously and helped her to survive. At her first camp Geppersdorf, where she spent nearly two years, there were many important prisoners who took a liking to Sala and gave her their protection. German officers also approved of her attractiveness, cleanliness, and talent as a seamstress. The Jewish Elder Kronenberg became her guardian, ensured that Ala and Sala stayed together while others were transferred elsewhere, and supplied her more stamps and postcards when she ran out. Handsome Dr. Wolf Leitner gave her cigarettes, helped Ala her from Nazi doctors looking for surgical experiment victims, and warned her of looming barrack hide inspections. Athletic Hokilo Dattner “shepherded her around the camp like an older brother, making sure that the roughest of Geppersdorf men, German or Jew, knew that she was under his care” (Kirschner, 47). The most persistent of these suitors was Chaim Kaufman, the camp shoemaker and tailor, who passed her letters declaring his love for her and demanding her answer. He even visited her family while on vacation home and “hinted to her parents of a future betrothal” (Kirschner, 106). Sala was ambivalent towards Chaim and “blamed her youth and inexperience, the war, concern about her family” for her “unwilling[ness] to commit,” but still benefited with her repaired shoes (Kirschner, 123). These men took it upon themselves to protect Sala, which certainly helped her survive in the camps.
A new romance especially excited Sala and gave her even more reason to survive in the face of despair. Her reasons for not loving Chaim did not prevent Sala from falling in love at Gross Paniow, her fifth camp in her second year of imprisonment, with an older Czech businessman, Harry Haubenstock. They passed love letters and talked of marriage which thrilled Sala, whose “heart was completely engaged for the first time” (Kirschner, 149). When their camp was to be shut down, he worked hard to keep them together, but their separation was inevitable. They continued to correspond until the mail ceased, and agreed to meet in Prague after the war. Her love for him kept her optimistic for a future where she could spend her freedom with him. One of her first destinations after liberation was Prague; she was determined to find him, but all she found was a message from him saying to forget him. Although she was heartbroken, her love for him while inside the camps enabled her to survive.
When outside mail delivery ended in the summer of 1943, Sala lost all connection to her friends and family and instead depended on her camp sisters as sources of motivation and hope for the future. From the moment they arrived at Sala’s seventh camp in the mountains of Czechoslovakia, they supported and looked after each other. According to Kirschner, “they were a bright and lively group of resourceful women” whose “bond was the envy of the camp” (Kirschner, 174). They kept up their spirits by drawing “strength and endurance from one another, clinging to beliefs and courtesies that connected them to their prewar lives” (Kirschner, 175). Sharing stories about their families helped distract them from the harsh reality of the labor camps and they dreamed of a better future. Instead of despairing over the silence caused by the halt of outside letters, they filled it by writing letters to each other. They also used birthdays as occasions to celebrate and exchange birthday cards and gifts. This close-knit circle of friends undoubtedly strengthened Sala’s resolve to survive.
In the extreme conditions of the Holocaust, prisoners’ lives depended on how strong their wills to live were, mixed in with luck. For Sala, her will to live was very strong because her relationships gave her motivation and the letters sustained her hope. Without these letters from loved ones, Sala would have had nothing to live for. Luck alone could not have kept up her will to live. As Kirschner states, the letters “have taught us about…the power of friendship and laughter, and the persistence of life and love amid the most extraordinary circumstances” (Kirschner, 9). For Sala, the letters gave meaning to her life and preserved her individuality and humanity when there was nothing else to hold onto. Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story teaches us the strength that relationships provide, and the important role they play in the worst conditions.
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)
Blake Eskin. “Letters From Hell.” New York Times Book Review.
November 12, 2006, p53. <http://docs.newsbank.com/s/InfoWeb/aggdocs/AWNB/1155B6F2EA6512B8/0D0CB57AD31233F5>
“Review of Kirschner, Sala’s Gift,” Kirkus Reviews; August 15,
2006, Vol. 74 Issue 16, p823-823. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=21987254&site=ehost-live>
“Review of Kirschner, Sala’s Gift,” Publisher's Weekly; August
21, 2006, Vol. 253 Issue 33, p58-58. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=22125541&site=ehost-live>
The New York Public Library, “Letters to Sala: A Young Woman’s Life
in Nazi Labor Camps” (archive.org: June 2006, last revised Nov. 2007) <http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/sala/index.html>
Ann Kirschner, “Sala’s Gift” (archive.org: Dec. 2006, last revised Feb.
Picasa Web Albums, “Some of the Original Letters” (Nov. 28, 2007), http://picasaweb.google.com/ann.kirschner/SOMESOFTHEORIGINALLETTERS
Anna Heilman, Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman
(Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2001), 159 pages. http://books.google.com/books?id=uo8Ajan7wxoC
Art Spiegelman, Maus I: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon,
1986), 159 pages.
Note from the Author, Apr. 12, 2010 (back to top)
Through the wonders of Google, I just came across a solid essay written on my book, Sala's Gift, last year by one of your students, Kelsey Tinkham.
I don't know if the book was assigned or just discovered by the student, but I figured I should say thank you for including it in your course. The book is about the hundreds of letters that my mother saved during her five year imprisonment in seven different Nazi slave labor camps. ...
I see that you trained at U Mich. I wondered if you had worked with Hermann Weiss, who made some remarkable discoveries of his own about my mother's story, and then became a good friend.
By the way, there is a beautiful traveling exhibition based on SALA'S GIFT - created by New York Public Library after the original letters were donated there in 2006. You can see more about that at www.nypl.org/letterstosala. I just came back from Portland, OR, where the exhibition is currently installed. It was also installed at U Michigan last year. if you think there might be interest at UCSB at some point, I would love to put the curator in touch with the right person.
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: