I knew that Sala Garncarz was born in Poland, the youngest of eleven children, and that she had survived a Nazi camp. I knew the names of my grandparents. I had one living aunt, but I didn't know anything about the rest of our once large family, not even their names.
In rare moments of retrospection, my mother would tell us about her arrival in the United States as the war bride of a handsome American soldier, ready to build a new life. I liked hearing her tale, especially since my brothers and I had starring roles. But even as a child, I was unconvinced. My mother was substituting a happy ending for an untold story. So fast, so complete a transformation from Sala, the survivor, to Sala, the happy American housewife and mother, seemed impossible. It was as if she had been snatched by extraterrestrials in 1939, and set down in New York in 1946.
Where did the old Sala go? What happened in the camp? Why didn't she have a number tattooed on her arm?
I had no one to ask. I never broached the subject with my brothers or my father. My mother's silence seemed to swallow up questions before they could be spoken aloud. When someone else - a new friend, a careless relative - wandered into the forbidden territory of Sala's years during the war, she turned her face away as if she had been slapped. Not all survivors refused to speak, I knew, and not all children were eager to listen. I had friends whose parents wouldn't stop talking about the past. Enough already, my friends would say, we're tired of playing Anne Frank.
I studied the faces in the old black-and-white photographs that stood like silent sentinels on her dresser. My favorite was a striking portrait of young Sala in profile, gazing intently at an older woman: "My friend Ala Gertner," my mother told me. She offered no details. Where did they meet? What happened to Ala Gertner? Sala, with her thick, glossy hair pulled back from her face and cascading down her back, her sharp cheekbones catching the light, looked like an irresistible ingÈnue from my favorite old movies with Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Moira Shearer, Irene Dunne. Ala was not nearly as pretty, but there was something bold and sophisticated in the tilt of her hat and something hypnotic in the way her eyes locked with my mother's.
Of course, despite her best efforts, Sala could never build an impermeable wall between our present and her past. The fog seeped in. During the televised trials of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, she sat and watched for hours, chain smoking, stony and silent. She read every Holocaust book, watched every Holocaust movie, observed every Holocaust anniversary, but silently, privately, as if I wasn't watching.
I thought she might yield when I became a mother. Let's give it a try, I decided, when my children were old enough to ask questions. My daughter was preparing a school project on family history and wanted to interview both of her grandparents. The setting was auspicious: we sat comfortably in my parents' living room, the dishes washed and put away, the sofa cushions straightened, the toys back in the closet. My father was entirely cooperative, his memories of New York in the '30s charming and evocative. When it was Sala's turn, she began to fidget, to squirm, unable to find a comfortable position. She threw out a few innocuous anecdotes, about the rag doll that was her only toy, about her circle of friends, their school uniforms. I had heard these all before. But then her discomfort became acute; her always troublesome arthritis and back pain interrupted her, she had to stand up, she had to walk around, and the tentative, sputtering flow of memory dribbled to a halt. She kept her secrets.
All that ended in 1991 on a day that would change her forever in my eyes, a day that was to change my life as well.
Sala was about to be admitted into the hospital and she was spending her last weekend with my family. New symptoms had become acute while she was traveling in Israel. Suddenly, the hills of Jerusalem were too steep for her to climb. She returned to New York and learned that she needed triple-bypass surgery.
She was sixty-seven years old, miserable in her first week of giving up smoking, and her hands looked empty without her usual cigarette. I could tell that she was getting ready to say goodbye. It was a beautiful summer day, we had just finished lunch, and I was sitting alone. She came outside to join me. In her hands, I saw a red cardboard box that had once contained my old "Spill and Spell" game.
She held it out to me and said, "You should have this."
Her jewelry, I thought.
Instead, I found within the box a small, worn brown leather portfolio about the size of a paperback book. Within the portfolio were hundreds of letters, postcards, and scraps of papers, some written in barely legible, tiny, cramped handwriting, others in beautiful italic script, some dashed off in blunt pencil scrawls on scraps of ragged paper, all neatly tucked away. "These are my letters from camp," she said. She spread them before me. Postcards and letters and photographs covered the table, the smell of old paper escaping into the summer air.
"What do you want to know?" my mother said.
And so I began to ask.
Questions spilled out randomly. Where had she been? Who had written the letters? How had she managed to save them? Where were these people now? My mother answered as best she could, her voice wound tightly around names and places long unspoken.
She was soon tired. Together, we returned the letters to the box that had held them for so long - but now the box was mine.
My mother's letters didn't just fill in a blank spot on the map of her past. They brought her to life - my mother as a young girl - and they also led our family out of the shadows, the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who were killed during the war.
The letters were written by more than eighty different people. They told the story of a family, a city, and an elaborate system of slavery organized by government and embraced by businesses. Only the first few postcards were written in Polish; the rest of the correspondence was in German, with a sprinkling in Czech and Yiddish. Some markings seemed obvious, like the "Z" stamp that indicated review by a censor (zensiert in German), but others took more study to yield their secrets. There were dozens of charming hand-drawn birthday cards, some with poems and quaint printed illustrations of flowers and children. I commissioned English translations. I was impatient; the arrival of each translation was as thrilling as if the letters had been written yesterday, and to me. I found letters from Ala Gertner, whose writing proved to be as distinctive as her photograph. There were love letters that had been smuggled to my mother by a suitor named Harry, whose existence had been entirely unknown to me. My Aunt Rose, still living in Brooklyn, became a different person. The faded photographs on my mother's dresser began to come alive.
My mother and I read the letters together. She needed the English versions almost as much as I did; at the end of the war, she had spoken and written German fluently, and had also added a smattering of Russian, and a bit of Czech to her two native languages, Polish and Yiddish. But she put away those languages in 1946. Her command of Polish and German had been extinguished to the point where she read only with great difficulty, her rusty translation skills clogged by emotions. As she pronounced the strange syllables in her familiar voice, it seemed like an odd trick of impersonation.
We talked and talked. She tolerated my questions and my tape recorder, offering up revelation after revelation as if the prohibition against sharing her memories had never existed. She was telling these stories for the first time and I was an eager listener.
What I had always imagined as my mother's relatively brief ordeal as a prisoner in one Nazi camp turned out to be almost five years in seven different labor camps. She was one of about fifty thousand slaves, young and healthy Jewish men and women from western Poland. They were the valuable property of Organization Schmelt, an SS division that was set up soon after the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Hundreds of labor camps were created in the early years of the war, usually attached to construction projects or factories that belonged to German businesses. Conditions varied, but in Sala's camps, they wore whatever clothes they had brought from home. Unlike the prisoners of Auschwitz, these men and women were not tattooed with numbers. These Jews were meant to survive, at least to finish the day's work. They had been torn from their loved ones, they were hungry, they worked impossible hours under unimaginable conditions, they slept in overcrowded wooden barracks without heat or ventilation, and they lived in constant terror - but the Nazis delivered their mail. Letters and packages were allowed, even encouraged, as if they were not prisoners but first-time campers away from home and the Nazis were eager to reassure anxious parents that all was well. By the summer of 1943, however, all the regular mail stopped.
Organization Schmelt is a minor footnote in history. Relatively little has been written about the partnership between Nazi bureaucrats, Jewish leaders, and German businessmen that spirited away tens of thousands of people from the Eastern Upper Silesian region of Poland. Few books even mention Albrecht Schmelt, the chief architect who lent his thick slap of a name to a rapidly expanding slave trade that made him a rich man. The very existence of labor camps where Jews received mail is hardly known, and their locations are all but forgotten - except by those who were imprisoned there. This is not surprising: to write about these places, which were constructed on the outer circles of hell, not its very core, might have appeared to compromise the agonizing reality of Auschwitz. In the Schmelt camps, there were no gas chambers, no crematoria, and no legions of spectral Musselmen, the walking dead who were common in Auschwitz, where the average survival time was three months.
Because the conditions in the death camps were so much worse, a certain competitiveness sometimes creeps in, even among survivors. "Oh, your mother was in the labor camps," one survivor told me, waving her arms dismissively, just enough for me to glimpse the number tattooed on her forearm. I had been showing her some of the letters. "I was in Auschwitz," she declared. "We could never have had such letters in Auschwitz." She had remained at home in Hungary until the summer of 1944, and most of her family had survived. How long was she in Auschwitz, I asked. "Four days," she said, her tone flat.
Four days in Auschwitz ... five years in seven different labor camps. My mother lost her parents, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins: at least forty members of her extended family. I do not want to compare. Some threshold of suffering defies measurement.
I prefer the raucous laughter that I heard on this subject from Sala and her friends. "My father was so rich, he sent me to camp for two years!" boasted Gucia, pounding the table and laughing over her coffee. "Ha!" Sala snorted in derision. "My father was much richer than your father - he sent me to camp for five whole years!"
Sala's courage and daring were matched with the instincts of an archivist. For five years, she kept everything hidden from camp guards, risking severe punishment. By creating a documentary record of her ordeal, she was participating in a time-honored tradition of chronicling communal disasters, as ancient as the Bible. In ghettos and concentration camps throughout Europe, people were writing and preserving firsthand testimonies and other documents. Contests were held to encourage individual chronicles and diaries. "Brothers, write down everything you see and hear," the historian Simon Dubnow urged as he was leaving the ghetto at Riga. "Keep a record of it all!" In milk cans buried in the Warsaw ghetto, in containers deposited within the wretched earth of Auschwitz itself, archives were carefully hidden. In contrast to the many eyewitness testimonies taken after the war, these primary sources are not subject to the vagaries of memory. In most cases, they quickly outlived their creators.
Sala's letters are drops of time, spontaneous outpourings rendered with the shapelessness of real life, their emotions raw and unfiltered. They never touch on world events. Since it is impossible not to read them without thinking about their context, I have filled in some essential background in telling my mother's story. The forward march of the German army, the entry of the United States into the war, Italian collaboration and treachery, the battle for the Pacific - none are mentioned by the correspondents, if indeed they were known to them at all. They had only limited insight into what was happening to them. It was a world of shadowy rumor and tentative prayer. Instead of focusing on external events, these private papers create an emotional history of the war, a complex fugue of fear, loneliness, and despair, always returning to the dominant theme of hope for tomorrow.
"Do you know why I write so much? Because as long as you read, we are together," her sister Raizel wrote. Their connection was alive in a piece of paper. Once the letters were in Sala's possession, she had to preserve them. Sala's letters were the individuals she loved, the friends and family who loved her. So she hid the letters during lineups, handed them to trusted friends, threw them under a building, even buried them under the ground. The preservation of these written words - for which she could have easily been killed - was directly and inextricably linked to saving her own life. I began to understand her logic: the risks she undertook to preserve the letters were nothing compared to the ultimate danger she would face without them, because she would have lost her motivation to live.
I heard many poignant stories from survivors about letters from home. My mother's friend Sara fell gravely ill with typhus after liberation, and entrusted her letters to someone she hardly knew, someone who promised to keep the papers safe while she was hospitalized. The doctors told Sara that in her delirium, she kept jumping up to search frantically under the bed for her letters. When she recovered, the person was gone, and so were her letters. Danke, a woman in her late seventies, looked like a young girl again, her eyes brimming with tears, as she told me about the old suitcase that was stolen by Russian soldiers after liberation. The suitcase held her letters from her mother and father, and the poetry she had written during the war. "What did they think I had there?" she wailed. Zusi, who lost her letters during a brutal camp inspection, could not believe the sight of her own handwriting on a 1944 birthday card to my mother: "How could your mother have done this?" she said in amazement. "How could you have these? See how smart, how brave your mother was!"
Ten years after the first discovery, in response to a heated family debate about whether we should keep the original letters or entrust them to a library, my father declared that he too had a box of letters: his wartime correspondence with his friends and family when he was serving in the Army. "And it is bigger than Bubbe's," he boasted.
The box was indeed bigger. It included my father's energetic and optimistic reports to his brothers and sister, letters to his Army buddies, even the mischievous telegram that he sent to my grandmother about his wedding plans. As I set about the task of cataloging these new documents, I found another fifty-six letters that had been written to my mother during the war. Twelve of them were from Ala Gertner.
There was also a singular treasure: my mother's diary from October 1940. Until then, I knew her young self only as she had been portrayed in the letters of her friends and family, and by her recollections. But now Sala stepped to center stage, recording the first few weeks of her five-year journey. I saw her at sixteen, staring at the strange scene through her luminous grey eyes, assessing her future with a sharp awareness of her need for something that she could hardly define.
Years afterward, I asked my mother what she expected that day when she gave me the letters. "Nothing in particular," she said. "I didn't want you to find them later. I wanted you to have the letters from me with my blessing. This way, I can tell you what I want, that whatever you do with them is OK, and this was my reason for giving them to you."
I take some comfort in knowing that I am not the first child to pursue the hidden truth behind a parent's painful memories; not the first who felt compelled to learn how the long shadow of the past shaped my own identity and beliefs. It has been a journey of self-discovery for both of us, although I am holding the pencil. The letters have taught us about mothers and daughters, about the power of friendship and laughter, and the persistence of life and love amid the most extraordinary circumstances.
Here, then, is my mother's story. . . .
Excerpted from Sala's Gift by Ann Kirschner Copyright © 2006 by Ann Kirschner. Excerpted by permission.
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