Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, 2005
Growing up, Ann Kirschner heard virtually nothing about her mother’s life before 1946. She knew only that before emigrating to the United States just after the war, Sala Kirschner, née Garncarz, had grown up in the Polish town of Sosnowiec, that she’d somehow survived a Nazi camp, and that she had no desire to ever set foot on Polish soil again.
All that changed in 1991 when, on the eve of triple bypass surgery, Sala came to Kirschner with an old cardboard box containing a diary, photographs, and over three hundred letters she’d received while imprisoned in Nazi work camps from 1940 to 1945. “What do you want to know?” she asked, prepared, at last, to answer all her daughter’s questions.
Armed at last with information about her mother’s past, Kirschner began to further research the places and events the letters described or alluded to (that research would ultimately bring her to write the book Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story, and to create, with the New York Public Library, a traveling exhibit of the letters and documents). Then, in 1994, she decided to travel to Poland so she could see those places close up. Much to her amazement, her mother said she’d like to go, too.
Kirschner speaks with Nextbook about that trip, which proved quite harrowing, and about a return trip this past summer which upended many of her first impressions.
Left: Postcard from Raizel Garncarz. This is Raizel’s first letter from a camp, telling Sala that she and their sister Blima were forcibly separated from their parents. The “Z” stamp indicates that the letter was censored.
Center: First page of Sala’s diary, October 28, 1940, “From the time of departure from Sosnowiec [Poland].”
Right: Birthday card, March 5, 1944. In 1944 and 1945, Sala received no mail from the outside world, only birthday greetings that were smuggled from one room of the camp to another.