"Do you know why I write so much? Because as long as you read, we are together."
-- Raizel Garncarz (Sala's sister),
April 24, 1941
Few family secrets have the power both to transform lives and to fill in crucial gaps in world history. But then, few families have a mother and a daughter quite like Sala and Ann Kirschner. For nearly fifty years, Sala kept a secret: She had survived five years as a slave in seven different Nazi work camps. Living in America after the war, she kept from her children any hint of her epic, inhuman odyssey. She held on to more than 350 letters, photographs, and a diary without ever mentioning them. Only in 1991, on the eve of heart surgery, did she suddenly present them to Ann and offer to answer any questions her daughter wished to ask. It was a life-changing moment for her scholar, writer, and entrepreneur daughter.
We know surprisingly little about the vast network of Nazi labor camps, where imprisoned Jews built railroads and highways, churned out munitions and materiel, and otherwise supported the limitless needs of the Nazi war machine. This book gives us an insider's account: Conditions were brutal. Death rates were high. As the war dragged on and the Nazis retreated, inmates were force-marched across hundreds of miles, or packed into cattle cars for grim journeys from one camp to another. When Sala first reported to a camp in Geppersdorf, Poland, at the age of sixteen, she thought it would be for six weeks. Five years later, she was still at a labor camp and only she and two of her sisters remained alive of an extended family of fifty. In the first years of the conflict, Sala was aided by her close friend Ala Gertner, who would later lead an uprising at Auschwitz and be executed just weeks before the liberation of that camp. Sala was also helped by other key friends. Yet above all, she survived thanks to the slender threads of support expressed in the letters of her friends and family. She kept them at great personal risk, and it is astonishing that she was able to receive as many as she did. With their heartwrenching expressions of longing, love, and hope, they offer a testament to the human spirit, an indomitable impulse even in the face of monstrosity.
Sala's Gift is a rare book, a gift from Ann to her mother, and a great gift from both women to the world.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
November 07, 2006
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Sala's Gift by Ann Kirschner
Introduction: Before She Was My Mother
My mother had a secret.
I knew that Sala Garncarz was born in Poland, the youngest of eleven children, and that she had survived a Nazi camp. I knew the names of my grandparents. I had one living aunt, but I didn't know anything about the rest of our once large family, not even their names.
In rare moments of retrospection, my mother would tell us about her arrival in the United States as the war bride of a handsome American soldier, ready to build a new life. I liked hearing her tale, especially since my brothers and I had starring roles. But even as a child, I was unconvinced. My mother was substituting a happy ending for an untold story. So fast, so complete a transformation from Sala, the survivor, to Sala, the happy American housewife and mother, seemed impossible. It was as if she had been snatched by extraterrestrials in 1939, and set down in New York in 1946.
Where did the old Sala go? What happened in the camp? Why didn't she have a number tattooed on her arm?
I had no one to ask. I never broached the subject with my brothers or my father. My mother's silence seemed to swallow up questions before they could be spoken aloud. When someone else -- a new friend, a careless relative -- wandered into the forbidden territory of Sala's years during the war, she turned her face away as if she had been slapped. Not all survivors refused to speak, I knew, and not all children were eager to listen. I had friends whose parents wouldn't stop talking about the past. Enough already, my friends would say, we're tired of playing Anne Frank.
I studied the faces in the old black-and-white photographs that stood like silent sentinels on her dresser. My favorite was a striking portrait of young Sala in profile, gazing intently at an older woman: "My friend Ala Gertner," my mother told me. She offered no details. Where did they meet? What happened to Ala Gertner? Sala, with her thick, glossy hair pulled back from her face and cascading down her back, her sharp cheekbones catching the light, looked like an irresistible ing?nue from my favorite old movies with Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Moira Shearer, Irene Dunne. Ala was not nearly as pretty, but there was something bold and sophisticated in the tilt of her hat and something hypnotic in the way her eyes locked with my mother's.
Of course, despite her best efforts, Sala could never build an impermeable wall between our present and her past. The fog seeped in. During the televised trials of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, she sat and watched for hours, chain smoking, stony and silent. She read every Holocaust book, watched every Holocaust movie, observed every Holocaust anniversary, but silently, privately, as if I wasn't watching.