Letters to Sala
A teenager's life in Nazi camps
by Laura Bien
From the February, 2008 issue
During World War II, sixteen-year-old Polish Jew Sala Garncarz was sent to a Nazi slave labor camp. She brought along a leather satchel. In between inspections and camp work, she gave the satchel to fellow prisoners, buried it, or hid it. It came with her to America in 1946 when she was a new war bride.
Then its contents went into hiding again, for the next fifty years. Finally, facing heart surgery in 1996, Sala gave her daughter its contents: more than 350 letters, postcards, and birthday cards (right) handmade by prisoners. The items are scheduled to be on display this month in the Graduate Library's new first-floor gallery.
The exhibit has eight triptychs, each with a three-foot-square center panel and smaller side panels, the shape suggesting an unfolded letter. The panels show images of correspondence sent to Sala by her family, first from her village of Sosnowiec and later from labor camps in Germany and occupied Poland. One image is a jagged page of the diary Sala began on the day of her deportation:
If you could have looked deep in my heart, you would have seen how desperate I was; still I tried to keep a smile on my face as best I could, though my eyes were filled with tears.
Other entries echo that optimism:
. . . we ate breakfast. One of the girls had brought with her [at deportation] some Lithuanian cheese, which she shared with us. We also had bread and butter an excellent breakfast. For dinner we had cabbage soup, quite tasty too.
Similar austerity back home in Sosnowiec appears in a letter from Sala's sister Raizel:
. . . we still don't have a sweater for you. There is none to be had at the community and we are so broke that we can't afford to buy you one. . . . I could send you mine . . . it might be
a little small . . . maybe we should send you [your sister] Blima's green dress, but it has short sleeves.
Letters from home, each bearing a stamped Z from Nazi censors, used code, like Raizel's description of a deportation:
Imagine, I was invited to a wedding. Chajka Szpiro already left to go there, but I didn't go because I wasn't home when the invitation came.
One snapshot shows Sala smiling with Harry, a man she met at the camp Gross Paniow. They vowed that if separated, they'd meet after the war in Prague. After liberation, Sala went to Prague, but Harry refused to meet her. He telegraphed: "I am alive. Wait for letter." That letter is not on display. He had married another woman.
At the first postwar synagogue services Sala attended, she met an American army colonel. After he returned home, he sent her a happier letter, planning their imminent wedding.
The letters may be viewed at the Graduate Library North Gallery February 2-28.
[Review published February 2008]
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