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
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
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 ingÉnue 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
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
I thought she might yield when I became a mother. Let's give it a
try, I decided, when my children were old enough to ask questions.
My daughter was preparing a school project on family history and
wanted to interview both of her grandparents. The setting was
auspicious: we sat comfortably in my parents' living room, the
dishes washed and put away, the sofa cushions straightened, the
toys back in the closet. My father was entirely cooperative, his
memories of New York in the '30s charming and evocative. When it
was Sala's turn, she began to fidget, to squirm, unable to find a
comfortable position. She threw out a few innocuous anecdotes,
about the rag doll that was her only toy, about her circle of
friends, their school uniforms. I had heard these all before. But
then her discomfort became acute; her always troublesome arthritis
and back pain interrupted her, she had to stand up, she had to walk
around, and the tentative, sputtering flow of memory dribbled to a
halt. She kept her secrets.
All that ended in 1991 on a day that would change her forever in my
eyes, a day that was to change my life as well.
Sala was about to be admitted into the hospital and she was
spending her last weekend with my family. New symptoms had become
acute while she was traveling in Israel. Suddenly, the hills of
Jerusalem were too steep for her to climb. She returned to New York
and learned that she needed triple-bypass surgery.
She was sixty-seven years old, miserable in her first week of
giving up smoking, and her hands looked empty without her usual
cigarette. I could tell that she was getting ready to say goodbye.
It was a beautiful summer day, we had just finished lunch, and I
was sitting alone. She came outside to join me. In her hands, I saw
a red cardboard box that had once contained my old "Spill and
She held it out to me and said, "You should have this."
Her jewelry, I thought.
Instead, I found within the box a small, worn brown leather
portfolio about the size of a paperback book. Within the portfolio
were hundreds of letters, postcards, and scraps of papers, some
written in barely legible, tiny, cramped handwriting, others in
beautiful italic script, some dashed off in blunt pencil scrawls on
scraps of ragged paper, all neatly tucked away. "These are my
letters from camp," she said. She spread them before me. Postcards
and letters and photographs covered the table, the smell of old
paper escaping into the summer air.
"What do you want to know?" my mother said.
And so I began to ask.
Questions spilled out randomly. Where had she been? Who had written
the letters? How had she managed to save them? Where were these
people now? My mother answered as best she could, her voice wound
tightly around names and places long unspoken.
She was soon tired. Together, we returned the letters to the box
that had held them for so long -- but now the box was mine.
My mother's letters didn't just fill in a blank spot on the map of
her past. They brought her to life -- my mother as a young girl --
and they also led our family out of the shadows, the grandparents,
aunts, uncles, and cousins who were killed during the war.
The letters were written by more than eighty different people. They
told the story of a family, a city, and an elaborate system of
slavery organized by government and embraced by businesses. Only
the first few postcards were written in Polish; the rest of the
correspondence was in German, with a sprinkling in Czech and
Yiddish. Some markings seemed obvious, like the "Z" stamp that
indicated review by a censor (zensiert in German), but others took
more study to yield their secrets. There were dozens of charming
hand-drawn birthday cards, some with poems and quaint printed
illustrations of flowers and children. I commissioned English
translations. I was impatient; the arrival of each translation was
as thrilling as if the letters had been written yesterday, and to
me. I found letters from Ala Gertner, whose writing proved to be as
distinctive as her photograph. There were love letters that had
been smuggled to my mother by a suitor named Harry, whose existence
had been entirely unknown to me. My Aunt Rose, still living in
Brooklyn, became a different person. The faded photographs on my
mother's dresser began to come alive.
My mother and I read the letters together. She needed the English
versions almost as much as I did; at the end of the war, she had
spoken and written German fluently, and had also added a smattering
of Russian, and a bit of Czech to her two native languages, Polish
and Yiddish. But she put away those languages in 1946. Her command
of Polish and German had been extinguished to the point where she
read only with great difficulty, her rusty translation skills
clogged by emotions. As she pronounced the strange syllables in her
familiar voice, it seemed like an odd trick of impersonation.
We talked and talked. She tolerated my questions and my tape
recorder, offering up revelation after revelation as if the
prohibition against sharing her memories had never existed. She was
telling these stories for the first time and I was an eager
What I had always imagined as my mother's relatively brief ordeal
as a prisoner in one Nazi camp turned out to be almost five years
in seven different labor camps.* She was one of about fifty
thousand slaves, young and healthy Jewish men and women from
western Poland. They were the valuable property of Organization
Schmelt, an SS division that was set up soon after the Nazi
invasion of Poland.
Hundreds of labor camps were created in the early years of the war,
usually attached to construction projects or factories that
belonged to German businesses. Conditions varied, but in Sala's
camps, they wore whatever clothes they had brought from home.
Unlike the prisoners of Auschwitz, these men and women were not
tattooed with numbers. These Jews were meant to survive, at least
to finish the day's work. They had been torn from their loved ones,
they were hungry, they worked impossible hours under unimaginable
conditions, they slept in overcrowded wooden barracks without heat
or ventilation, and they lived in constant terror -- but the Nazis
delivered their mail. Letters and packages were allowed, even
encouraged, as if they were not prisoners but first-time campers
away from home and the Nazis were eager to reassure anxious parents
that all was well. By the summer of 1943, however, all the regular
Organization Schmelt is a minor footnote in history. Relatively
little has been written about the partnership between Nazi
bureaucrats, Jewish leaders, and German businessmen that spirited
away tens of thousands of people from the Eastern Upper Silesian
region of Poland. Few books even mention Albrecht Schmelt, the
chief architect who lent his thick slap of a name to a rapidly
expanding slave trade that made him a rich man. The very existence
of labor camps where Jews received mail is hardly known, and their
locations are all but forgotten -- except by those who were
imprisoned there. This is not surprising: to write about these
places, which were constructed on the outer circles of hell, not
its very core, might have appeared to compromise the agonizing
reality of Auschwitz. In the Schmelt camps, there were no gas
chambers, no crematoria, and no legions of spectral Musselmen, the
walking dead who were common in Auschwitz, where the average
survival time was three months.
Because the conditions in the death camps were so much worse, a
certain competitiveness sometimes creeps in, even among survivors.
"Oh, your mother was in the labor camps," one survivor told me,
waving her arms dismissively, just enough for me to glimpse the
number tattooed on her forearm. I had been showing her some of the
letters. "I was in Auschwitz," she declared. "We could never have
had such letters in Auschwitz." She had remained at home in Hungary
until the summer of 1944, and most of her family had survived. How
long was she in Auschwitz, I asked. "Four days," she said, her tone
Four days in Auschwitz...five years in seven different labor camps.
My mother lost her parents, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews,
cousins: at least forty members of her extended family. I do not
want to compare. Some threshold of suffering defies
I prefer the raucous laughter that I heard on this subject from
Sala and her friends. "My father was so rich, he sent me to camp
for two years!" boasted Gucia, pounding the table and laughing over
her coffee. "Ha!" Sala snorted in derision. "My father was much
richer than your father -- he sent me to camp for five whole
Sala's courage and daring were matched with the instincts of an
archivist. For five years, she kept everything hidden from camp
guards, risking severe punishment. By creating a documentary record
of her ordeal, she was participating in a time-honored tradition of
chronicling communal disasters, as ancient as the Bible. In ghettos
and concentration camps throughout Europe, people were writing and
preserving firsthand testimonies and other documents. Contests were
held to encourage individual chronicles and diaries. "Brothers,
write down everything you see and hear," the historian Simon Dubnow
urged as he was leaving the ghetto at Riga. "Keep a record of it
all!" In milk cans buried in the Warsaw ghetto, in containers
deposited within the wretched earth of Auschwitz itself, archives
were carefully hidden. In contrast to the many eyewitness
testimonies taken after the war, these primary sources are not
subject to the vagaries of memory. In most cases, they quickly
outlived their creators.
Sala's letters are drops of time, spontaneous outpourings rendered
with the shapelessness of real life, their emotions raw and
unfiltered. They never touch on world events. Since it is
impossible not to read them without thinking about their context, I
have filled in some essential background in telling my mother's
story. The forward march of the German army, the entry of the
United States into the war, Italian collaboration and treachery,
the battle for the Pacific -- none are mentioned by the
correspondents, if indeed they were known to them at all. They had
only limited insight into what was happening to them. It was a
world of shadowy rumor and tentative prayer. Instead of focusing on
external events, these private papers create an emotional history
of the war, a complex fugue of fear, loneliness, and despair,
always returning to the dominant theme of hope for tomorrow.
"Do you know why I write so much? Because as long as you read, we
are together," her sister Raizel wrote. Their connection was alive
in a piece of paper. Once the letters were in Sala's possession,
she had to preserve them. Sala's letters were the individuals she
loved, the friends and family who loved her. So she hid the letters
during lineups, handed them to trusted friends, threw them under a
building, even buried them under the ground. The preservation of
these written words -- for which she could have easily been killed
-- was directly and inextricably linked to saving her own life. I
began to understand her logic: the risks she undertook to preserve
the letters were nothing compared to the ultimate danger she would
face without them, because she would have lost her motivation to
I heard many poignant stories from survivors about letters from
home. My mother's friend Sara fell gravely ill with typhus after
liberation, and entrusted her letters to someone she hardly knew,
someone who promised to keep the papers safe while she was
hospitalized. The doctors told Sara that in her delirium, she kept
jumping up to search frantically under the bed for her letters.
When she recovered, the person was gone, and so were her letters.
Danke, a woman in her late seventies, looked like a young girl
again, her eyes brimming with tears, as she told me about the old
suitcase that was stolen by Russian soldiers after liberation. The
suitcase held her letters from her mother and father, and the
poetry she had written during the war. "What did they think I had
there?" she wailed. Zusi, who lost her letters during a brutal camp
inspection, could not believe the sight of her own handwriting on a
1944 birthday card to my mother: "How could your mother have done
this?" she said in amazement. "How could you have these? See how
smart, how brave your mother was!"
Ten years after the first discovery, in response to a heated family
debate about whether we should keep the original letters or entrust
them to a library, my father declared that he too had a box of
letters: his wartime correspondence with his friends and family
when he was serving in the Army. "And it is bigger than Bubbe's,"
The box was indeed bigger. It included my father's energetic and
optimistic reports to his brothers and sister, letters to his Army
buddies, even the mischievous telegram that he sent to my
grandmother about his wedding plans. As I set about the task of
cataloging these new documents, I found another fifty-six letters
that had been written to my mother during the war. Twelve of them
were from Ala Gertner.
There was also a singular treasure: my mother's diary from October
1940. Until then, I knew her young self only as she had been
portrayed in the letters of her friends and family, and by her
recollections. But now Sala stepped to center stage, recording the
first few weeks of her five-year journey. I saw her at sixteen,
staring at the strange scene through her luminous grey eyes,
assessing her future with a sharp awareness of her need for
something that she could hardly define.
Years afterward, I asked my mother what she expected that day when
she gave me the letters. "Nothing in particular," she said. "I
didn't want you to find them later. I wanted you to have the
letters from me with my blessing. This way, I can tell you what I
want, that whatever you do with them is OK, and this was my reason
for giving them to you."
I take some comfort in knowing that I am not the first child to
pursue the hidden truth behind a parent's painful memories; not the
first who felt compelled to learn how the long shadow of the past
shaped my own identity and beliefs. It has been a journey of
self-discovery for both of us, although I am holding the pencil.
The letters have taught us about mothers and daughters, about the
power of friendship and laughter, and the persistence of life and
love amid the most extraordinary circumstances.
Excerpted from SALA'S GIFT: My Mother's Holocaust Story ©
Copyright 2011 by Ann Kirschner. Reprinted with permission by Free
Press. All rights reserved.