“Sala’s Gift”: a whole war in a tin box


You will probably not have heard of Gross Sarne, Brande, Blechhammer or Schatzlar, but these are places that should be remembered. They were all Nazi slave labour camps in World War Two. The last on that list, Schatzlar, or Žacléř as it is known in Czech, was in what is now the Czech Republic, in the part of north-eastern Bohemia annexed by the German Reich in 1938. Few people in this country, even among the inhabitants of Žacléř itself, know that the camp even existed, but a new book should help to put that right. The daughter of one of the survivors has just been in the Czech Republic, to launch the Czech edition of her book “Sala’s Gift”. The book tells her mother’s story, drawing richly from Sala’s own memories and from several hundred letters that, against all odds, survived the war. David Vaughan tells the story.

Ann Kirschner’s mother, Sala, was one of 50,000 young Jewish men and women from southern Poland who were made to work in labour camps as part of Operation Schmelt, an SS division set up after the 1939 invasion. The aim was to provide slave labour for German construction projects and factories. Working conditions were awful, but, at least in the camps that Sala, went through, prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes, they were not tattooed with numbers as at Auschwitz, and crucially to this story, they were able to send and receive post. Thanks to Sala’s surviving correspondence and her diary entries, the book Sala’s Gift gives us a picture of her life as a teenager, passing from one labour camp to another, becoming close friends with some of the other girls. Here is part of a message that the girls wrote to Sala in the camp, not long before they were liberated:

March 5th is a happy and a lucky day for us. For today we are celebrating our dear Sala’s birthday; alas, still behind barbed wire. Oh, what a great holiday this would be if we celebrated your birthday in freedom, together with your loved ones. Let’s not lose hope! Let good luck shine on you just like the bright sunshine that steals secretly through our camp windows. Sala, sometimes, when the three of us are in the bunk, and you are asleep, we hear you call in your sleep: “Mommy, Daddy.. .” We do not want to wake you, for we know that, at that moment, you are happily with them. We talk it over: “Should we wake her or not?” Forgive us, Sala dearest, that we sometimes disturb your sweet dreams.

Ann Kirschner
After five years in various slave labour camps, the persistent, gentle humanity of letters like this is striking. Ann had no idea that her mother’s letters had survived. With her new life in the United States, Sala would never talk about her experiences of the war, even to her children. That was until 1991, when she was about to go to hospital for major heart surgery. She handed Ann a box, and not surprisingly, Ann assumed that it contained her jewelry.

“It’s as simple as that. Only what was inside the box was not jewels but 350 letters that she had received while she was imprisoned in seven different Nazi slave labour camps.”

And this was in the early 1990s, some fifty years after it had all happened.

“Yes. She kept that secret for fifty years. When she came to the States as a war bride, she had those letters with her, but somehow they got hidden away and we never knew about them.”

And what are the letters? Most of them were not written by her.

“In fact, almost none of them were written by her. A lot of them were written by her sister [Raizel] who was still at home, and so she tells her about the worsening conditions at home, some of them were written by her dear friend Ala Gertner, who was later hanged at Auschwitz as a heroine of the resistance. Some of my favourites are the letters that were written to her by her girlfriends, which are just the kind of letters you would expect 16-year-old silly girls to write – about haircuts and boys and clothing. So here it is, in the middle of the war – Jews are being deported and sent to horrible places and they’re talking to her about their haircuts.”

From the book
It’s strange – this kind of normality set against the most grotesque abnormality…

“Yes, and I think these are the things we do when real life is too much for us. We do find a new kind of normalcy which gives us comfort.”

We hear a lot about the big camps – the extermination camps – but your mother survived the entire war in small camps that most people won’t have even heard of….

“Obviously there’s been a tremendous amount written about the death camps. But there really has been very little written about these camps, the “Zwangsarbeitslager” – forced labour camps. I had to do a lot of original research, going back to the German archives, to figure out what had happened. Some of the Nazis wanted to kill all the Jews and some of them wanted to just work them to death. The network of forced labour camps was built by Germans who wanted to make money from the Jews as slaves.”

I had never heard of the camp in Žacléř, which is a small town in the Krkonoše mountains in the far north of the Czech Republic. It came as a real surprise to hear that your mother, as a Polish Jew, spend part of the war at a camp there.

“I think it came as a surprise to the people in Žacléř now!”

And how has the local authority there reacted? Is there interest, for example, in putting up some kind of memorial there?

“I haven’t heard about a memorial, but I have been invited to meet 350 high school students tomorrow, so I’m very excited about that. There was a beautiful exhibition in the historical museum in Žacléř and I imagine that I shall meet the town brass tomorrow!”

Sala Garncarz
One extraordinary part of your mother’s story is that she fell in love in one of the camps, which seems almost unimaginable today, when we think of the horrors that were going on. Love blossomed here amid such horror.

“Yes, and after they were separated and my mother ended up in Žacléř he sent her a love letter, and the commandant of the camp called my mother in and said, ‘You’re not supposed to get any letters here, but I’ve just read this letter and it’s so beautiful that I am going to give it to you,’ and that’s how she got this last love letter from Harry.”

I’m sending you the little photo from Gross Paniow. It is the most precious thing I own, because we were together then. How wonderful it would be if you were with me now. But every love has to be tested by suffering and separations, even though that is hardly necessary for us. You know very well that you can rely on me. ... My sweet little bride, I hope you still have some good opinions about men. However, please don’t judge me by the usual standards, for there are no other girls for me, just one single beloved Salusia!! My dearest, I wish you all the best for your birthday and remain yours eternally, Harry ... when I go to work and look at the mountains, I think of you. Come Harry, come to me, I’m so scared. Even though hundreds of kilometers are between us, nothing can separate us. You will always, always be mine. We thought it wouldn’t come to this, but it has, and this is the cruelest. .. I don’t even want to remember that moment, your tear-stained and drawn face—oh Harry, I ask you, tell me, when will all of this end? When, when? I feel better now, I will go to bed and think of you all night.

From the book
They both survived. Harry was a Czech Jewish fellow prisoner. He promised to marry her, but in the end he broke that promise, didn’t he?

“He did break that promise. After Harry was separated from my mother he went on to another camp and another camp and another camp, and he had a girlfriend in every one of those camps. So, he eventually met a young woman and they were liberated together, so he couldn’t escape his promise. He actually did have to marry that last one!”

And what happened to your mother after the liberation?

“Well, when Harry sent her the telegram in Prague, which was where they said they would meet after the war, she was initially heartbroken, and then one of her friends saw her and practically slapped her, saying: ‘Come on, Sala, there are a lot of men in this world.’ They left Prague together and walked and rode on the tops of trains until they arrived at the American zone. And in the little town of Ansbach in Germany in September 1945, my mother attended Jewish New Year services for the first time since she had left her mother and father in 1940, and there, the American soldiers from the nearby base at Nuremberg were also attending Jewish New Year services. So, there was Sala Garncarz – weighing 90 pounds – sitting upstairs in the women’s section, and there was Sidney Kirschner, a corporal from New York City, sitting downstairs, and he found a way to get an introduction to her. Two months later they were married and about four months after that, she was on a boat to the United States as a war bride. They moved fast in those days!”

And one result of that is you… and the book that you partly wrote and partly composed from the letters, telling your mother’s story.

“The book, ‘Sala’s Gift’ weaves the letters together with the historical context, but the star of the book is sixteen-year-old Sala, being taken away from home and having to navigate the incredible, hostile world of the war.”

Your mother is still alive, so what does 88-year-old Sala think of the book?

Ann Kirschner,  Karin Venhauerová
“She’s very shy, very private, so sometimes she feels a little exposed, but at other times I know she’s happy that we’re talking about people who were killed, people who otherwise would have left the world without a trace. And it is important that people remember. There are worse things in being 88 years old than having people talking about you, so I think she forgives me for making her tell her secrets – I suspect she has one or two that she hasn’t told me yet, and, who knows, maybe there’s another book in that.”

I was talking to Ann Kirschner about her book “Sala’s Gift”. The English edition was published by Simon and Schuster in 2006, and the Czech translation, “Salin dar” has just been published by Mladá fronta. The translation came about on the initiative of the young Czech film maker, Karin Venhauerová, who herself was born in Žacléř. In 2008 a small exhibition of Sala’s correspondence was held in the town, and when Karin saw it, she was amazed that she had never heard about the wartime camp. She managed to get a grant to have the book published in Czech and is working on a documentary that will tell Sala’s story.

At the end of the book is a list of Sala’s relatives. Of those who were in Poland at the beginning of the war, only Sala and two of her sisters Raizel and Blima survived – along with the 350 letters and a few photographs. “Do you know why I write so much?” Raizel wrote in a letter to Sala in April 1941. “Because as long as you read, we are together.” And as long as we read and reread these letters, we can keep alive the memory of those who died.