Sala Garncarz, 22, reads a newspaper written in Yiddish in Central Park in 1946, a year after being liberated by the Allies from a forced-labor camp in the former Czechoslovakia.
Writings expose Nazi camp’s grim secrets
By Mark Sommer
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Ann Kirschner’s mother handed her the 352 carefully preserved letters, documents and photographs kept inside a red cardboard “Spill and Spell” game box.
“You should have this,” Sala Garncarz Kirschner, then 67, and about to go into the hospital for triple-bypass surgery, said that day in 1991.
With that simple transaction, Garncarz Kirschner, a Holocaust survivor, took the first step toward unlocking the painful past she had refused to discuss for more than 40 years.
“I was suddenly face to face with the past I had always wanted to know about,” Kirschner said in a recent phone interview.
A reproduced portion of the material donated to the New York Public Library’s archives in 2005 will be on view at no charge from today through June 30 in the Jewish Community Center, 2640 N. Forest Road, Getzville. For more information, call 634-9535.
Garncarz Kirschner was the youngest of 11 children born to an impoverished Hebrew teacher and his wife in Sosnowiec, Poland. She was just 16 when she took an older sister’s place in a forced-labor camp required by the Nazis of young Jews from poor homes.
“Still, I could not stop looking at you, Mother, because I felt something inside of me tearing, hurting,” the teenage Garncarz Kirschner wrote before her departure. “One more kiss, one more hug. My mother does not want to let go of me. Let it end already, it is torture. I say goodbye to my sisters.”
While Nazis did not allow mail into or out of concentration camps, they did so in the labor camps, believing it helped boost production. Letters were reviewed by Nazi censors — who marked materials with a “Z”stamp— and after 1940 had to be written in German only. The mail was discontinued in 1943.
The camp was part of a network that relied on Jews to work in construction, textile manufacturing and munitions factories. It was administered by Albrecht Schmelt, a Nazi bureaucrat, assisted by Jewish politician and collaborator Moses Merin.
Garncarz Kirschner was sent away on an October day in 1940 for what she believed would be six weeks. It would turn out to be the first of seven labor camps she was sent to — three each in Germany and Poland, and one in the former Czechoslovakia — before being liberated by the Allies in May 1945.
Garncarz Kirschner, now 85, and two sisters she later reunited with in New York were practically the only members of an extended family of almost 50 to survive.
Kirschner said her mother’s reasons for not speaking so long about her horrific past had to do with the pain of revisiting that period in her life and the desire to shield her children.
“They were very deep and painful memories — the loss of her family, the life she thought she was going to live, her culture, her language, the destruction of everything she had grown up with. That was part of it, but my mother is a very brave person, so that wasn’t the only reason,” Kirschner said.
“She wanted to raise her children not to hate, and her fear was if we knew everything that had happened and somehow shared the darkness of the years with her, we might be frightened and not be able to face the world with optimism and hope. And she wanted us, above all, to be optimistic and hopeful.”
Kirschner, who is dean of Macauley Honors College at the City University of New York, wrote “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story,” published in 2007. The book has been translated into Polish, German and Italian, with forthcoming editions in Chinese and French.
Kirschner, a 1971 graduate of the University at Buffalo, credits the school during the “incredibly vibrant time” she attended for equipping her to tell her mother’s story.
“This rare collection invites the public to bear witness to this horrific historical event in history, and we are privileged to bring it to Western New York,” said Sylvia Schwartz, executive director of the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, which is presenting the exhibit.
A similar exhibition to the one in Buffalo is on view in a Jewish Center in Poland and will open in November in Nuremberg, Germany.
“For my mom, it’s always a wonder to her that people are interested in her story,” said Kirschner, who will speak at the exhibit’s opening at 7 p. m. Wednesday. “And so one thing that’s very comforting to her is that the people who died will be remembered and that simple acts of goodness and courage will not be forgotten.”
msommer@buffnews.com (external - login to view)