Books

For nearly fifty years, Sala Kirschner kept a secret. After surviving 5 years of Nazi work camps, she came to America as a war bride and raised a family without ever speaking of her wartime experience. Her daughter, Ann, grew up in a happy and safe home, and became a scholar, writer, and a mother herself, but always wondered about the black hole in her mother’s past.

It was not until Sala was scheduled for heart surgery in 1991 that she showed her daughter Ann a priceless collection of more than 350 letters from her years in the Nazi work camps, documents that she had kept carefully hidden and preserved in a cardboard box. She risked her life to preserve these letters, hiding them from guards 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. The letters—along with her diary, photographs, and keepsakes—form the basis of Ann Kirschner’s SALA’S GIFT: My Mother’s Holocaust Story (Free Press: November 7, 2006; $26.00). Capturing the horror of Sala’s astonishing odyssey through the Nazi labor camps—which are far less understood than the extermination camps—SALA’S GIFT is one of the most important new books on the Holocaust to be published in recent years.

As the letters pass from the Kirshner family to history, they are becoming the genesis of many creative and scholarly works. They are now part of the New York Public Library’s permanent collection, and the center of a documentary and a play in progress. But only Ann has the unusual experience of being a participant and an observer, memoirist and historian, daughter and author. “When I first received the letters,” said Ann, “I knew immediately that they would change my life. The project kept expanding, as I moved from archivist (organizing and translating the letters) to oral historian (conducting interviews with my mother and other survivors) to researcher (steeping myself in the history of the period to understand the broader context). In 1994, I traveled with my mother, father, and two brothers back to Europe. We retraced Sala’s steps throughout the war, and visited the site of all seven camps, an extraordinary journey.”

Sala’s saga began in 1940. After volunteering to take her older sister’s place for what she thought would be a six-week stay in one of the first Nazi work camps, she left her parents and a large extended family of siblings, nieces, nephews, and in-laws to take a train away from the Polish city that had been her entire world. Little did she know that the six weeks would stretch into five years of slavery. She survived thanks to extraordinary luck and help from a series of guardian angels, including one particular inmate who became her closest friend (who was eventually executed in the final days of the war for helping to organize the only armed uprising at Auschwitz). In giving her letters to Ann, Sala not only shared important historical documents, but revealed an identity that has challenged and deepened their relationship in surprising ways.

Douglas Greenberg, Executive Director, The Shoah Foundation has said “This is a truly remarkable book, one from which both the general reader and the most experienced scholar will learn what can be learned in no other way.  I read books on the Holocaust for a living, and I have rarely read one so economical in its prose, so elegant in its presentation, and so human in its narrative frame.  It has uncommon power and deep effect.”

“Sala’s Gift is truly a gift,” said Michael Berenbaum, Founding Director of The Holocaust Museum, and Professor of Theology, the University of Judaism. “Meticulously researched and respectfully presented, Sala’s Gift is a singular work, carefully crafted. It extends our understanding of Jewish women and the manner in which they struggled for survival – and for flickers of light amidst the darkness.”