Ann Kirschner always wondered about it. Her mother, Sala Garncarz Kirschner, had a secret past before coming to America; for most of her life it was a period of time she didn’t feel comfortable discussing. “You could not ask about her life before entering the United States,” Kirschner says. “She would shut down any conversation. She would silence you with a look or her eyes would fill with tears.”
At 67 and facing heart surgery, however, Sala finally decided to let her loved ones know the truth — she came to this country as a war bride after spending several years in various concentration camps as a young woman during the Holocaust. She kept more than 350 letters and a diary from that time.
After the gravity of what her mother divulged sunk in, Kirschner eventually decided to share Sala’s past with the world by writing a book in 2006, Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story, and sharing some of the letters as part of a permanent collection at the New York Public Library. The book has been adapted into a play, Letters to Sala, presented by Stage Door Players and running April 24–27 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA).
It coincides with Letters to Sala: A Young Woman’s Life in Nazi Labor Camps, an exhibition of some of the letters through May 28 also at MJCCA, as well as the Center’s Day of Holocaust Remembrance on April 27.
The author fully understands why her mother kept her past to herself. “There are some things too painful to be shared,” Kirschner says. “I think she had a psychological astute sense that somehow her own sad past might make her children less than normal. It was easier for her to remain silent completely than to share selectively. And I’m not sure she was wrong. Sometimes there are secrets better kept until the recipient is able to hear them.” Kirschner admits the revelations brought up painful memories for her mother, but ultimately gave her a sense of accomplishment and gratification.
When she heard the news in 1991, Kirschner was herself relieved. “I had an overwhelming sense of excitement,” she says. “It was giving me an opportunity to visit these stories from the past, to see my mother as a young girl. It was as if I had a part to play; not being shut out but being allowed in.”
Much of the correspondence is with Ala Gertner, who was eventually hanged in Auschwitz. She was the figure that fascinated Kirschner the most. “I admire her,” she says. “I so wish I could have met her. She was a thoroughly modern woman, a combination of intelligence, maturity and romance, and a beautiful writer.”
It took 15 years from the time Sala gave Ann the letters until the book was finished. During that time was much stopping and starting. “From 1994 to 2002 I put the letters away,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was turned away by every publisher in town; it felt like I had run into a brick wall.”
When her aunt passed away, she realized she had unfinished business and resolved to get Sala’s letters into a library or museum as a final resting place. “I knew I needed to take them out of my closet,” she says. In the course of doing that, an editor heard her story, liked it and convinced her to finish the book.
Yet condensing several years worth of material into one book was hardly easy. “It was unbelievably difficult,” she says. “There were about 350 letters. Every one to me was a precious jewel. Each one represented a human being. Of the 80 people who wrote to my mother, only a handful were alive at the end of the war. To choose between your children that way was hard.”
Kirschner later worked with playwright Arlene Hutton to adapt the story for stage, consulting with her often but realizing that Hutton would take some dramatic license. In the end, Kirschner feels the play captures both the essence and the urgency of her book and builds on it.
Letters to Sala finds an older Sala forced to relive her youth as her daughter and granddaughters realize what has happened and begin to examine the consequences of their own Jewish heritage.
A member of Stage Door Players’ board who is friends with Hutton saw the play and wanted an Atlanta production. As the company looked for a partner, they realized they had one very nearby at the MJCCA. Directed by Jaclyn Hofmann, the Atlanta version stars Susan Shalhoub Larkin as Sala and Rachel Frawley as young Sala.
Few U.S. cities have been able to host the play and exhibition concurrently. It took a few years to plan, but Kim Goodfriend, special project manager of the MJCCA, feels the two complement each other. “The play is a wonderful opportunity to hear and see some of what went on, but it is based on a writer’s inspiration,” she says. “You can walk out after and see the exhibition and realize this story was not limited to the stage.”
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