January 31, 2013
On exhibit at Hampden-Sydney's Atkinson Museum beginning Wednesday, February 6, is part of the collection Letters to Sala: A Young Woman's Life in Nazi Labor Camps. The exhibit is based on rare Holocaust-era letters and photographs from The New York Public Library Dorot Jewish Division and is presented in conjunction with the upcoming Holocaust symposium and Fine Arts production at Hampden-Sydney College.
Handwritten postcards, letters, photographs, and official documents were saved at great personal risk by Sala Garncarz from the time she entered her first of seven Nazi labor camps in 1940 until her liberation in 1945. The collection and narrative give a first-hand view into the human drama that unfolded among Jews forced to work as slave laborers and those who loved and wrote them as long as they could.
In 1991, as 67-year-old Sala Garncarz Kirschner prepared herself for triple bypass surgery, she opened a painful chapter of her past. For nearly five decades she had shielded her three children from her Holocaust years, never talking about her Polish Jewish family's experiences during World War II.
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.
The Esther Atkinson Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 AM to 12 PM and 1 to 5:00 PM. The Letters to Sala exhibit is on display through March 23.
For additional information, call 434-223-6134 (www.hsc.edu/museum).