The story of Sala Garncarz is full of heartbreak, horror, injustice, and, somehow, hope. Through the five years she spent in Nazi slave labor camps, Sala kept a diary and collected hundreds of letters she received while in the camps. For 50 years she kept the letters a secret.
But in 1991 she revealed the collection to her daughter, Ann Kirschner. From this moment grew a book, and now a play, “Letters to Sala,” which is experiencing its Northwest premier this week at Seattle Pacific University.
“My mother was one of those Holocaust survivors who never talked about her experiences at all,” Ann said. “In 1991 she was having open heart surgery, and right before the surgery she brought me this box, and said, ‘Here I want you to have this.’ And inside the box was what turned out to be 350 letters, which she had received while she was in not one camp, but seven different Nazi slave labor camps, as well as a diary that she had kept very early in her period as a slave laborer.”
(Indeed, the Germans were organized enough to enslave a population without letting mail service slide.)
After a family kerfuffle over what should be done with the letters — Ann thought they belonged to history, while her daughters thought they should remain private — Ann succeeded in her argument and proceeded to write “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story.” She donated the one-of-a-kind collection to the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library.
“Letters to Sala” bounces between Sala’s experiences during the war and modern-day New York City, where she reveals the collection to Ann, and Ann’s dispute with her daughters over the letters’ fate.
There are ideas in “Letters to Sala” that are intriguing, like the question of which types of artifacts are better served within the community, as opposed to kept private within a family, or the reality of what exactly it cost Sala to hide her letters while in the camps.
Ann says the letters were a way for her mother to save the lives of family and friends, most of whom were killed. “Nobody was going to take her letters. She would have died for them,” she said. “It was an act of resistance on her part, and also an act of tremendous spirituality and faith.”
Ann is happy with playwright Arlene Hutton’s adaptation of the book for the stage. “This is a wonderful way for history to find different audiences,” she said. SPU’s status as a Christian college makes the story all the more important. How many more non-Jewish people, who may not have a personal relationship to this dark period of history, will now be touched by and connected to a survivor’s incredible tale?
While the production’s set design is strong, and the use of projection provides some of the strongest moments in the show (like when Sala and romantic interest Harry pose for a photo in a camp and the real-life photo of Sala and Harry is projected above them), ultimately the play’s subject matter is the reason why it struggles and sags at times. It is a play about letters. And with letters frequently being used as substitutes for live dialogue — an especially unavoidable convention when the play itself is based on letters — why write a play when the actual artifacts and book seem to be most effective?
Perhaps Arlene Hutton’s thought was not “Why?” but “Why not?” With that in mind, it is easier to observe the ways in which the play does succeed. It shares an inspirational Holocaust story with audiences who may have otherwise never known about it, it keeps Sala’s legacy alive, and it reminds us that — in one of the play’s stronger bits of dialogue — “We will tell ourselves to endure. After all, Jews are used to it.”