This website is part of The New York Public Library's Online Exhibition Archive. For current classes, programs, and exhibitions, please visit
Letters to Sala

Letters to Sala


Sala Garncarz, 12 years old, Sosnowiec, Poland, 1936
Sala Garncarz, 12 years old, Sosnowiec, Poland, 1936

In 1991, as 67-year-old Sala Garncarz Kirschner prepared herself for triple bypass surgery, she opened a painful chapter of her past. For nearly five decades she had shielded her three children from her Holocaust years, never talking about her Polish Jewish family’s experiences during World War II.

One summer day that year, she approached her daughter, Ann, carrying a red cardboard box that had once contained a “Spill and Spell” game. She held it out, saying, “You should have this.” Within the box was a small, worn brown leather portfolio stuffed with letters, postcards, and scraps of paper—an amazing array of Polish, German, and Yiddish writing, some of it barely legible, tiny and cramped, some of it beautiful calligraphy. The postcards were covered with stamp-size Hitlers and thick “Z” stamps. “These are my letters from the war,” Sala told her daughter.

That afternoon, Sala began to fill in the missing pieces of her history. She was taken from home when she was 16 and survived five years in seven different Nazi forced labor camps. Saving the letters became inextricably linked with saving her life. The letters were not mere pieces of paper: they were the people she loved, friends and family waiting for her return. She risked her life to preserve the letters, hiding them 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.

Liberated in 1945, Sala came to the United States as a war bride, and hid her papers in a closet. Five years of her life were also hidden until the day she revealed the existence of more than 300 letters, photographs, and documents.

Sala’s story is, above all, a story of life and one young woman’s way of seeing beyond years of horror. From her letters, we learn about friendship and love, Jewish life in occupied Poland, Nazi labor camps, the intensely human need to rebuild life after the catastrophe of war, and the ability of words to give and sustain life.

Jill Vexler, Ph.D.
Guest Curator

Ann Kirschner, Ph.D.
Consultant to Letters to Sala

Debórah Dwork, Ph.D., Robert Jan van Pelt, Ph. D., Holocaust Historians
Consultants to Letters to Sala

Unless otherwise indicated, the letters, photographs, and documents in the exhibition are drawn from the Sala Garncarz Kischner Collection, donated by the Kirschner family in April 2005 to the Library’s Dorot Jewish Division.

Support for this exhibition has been provided by the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the French Children of the Holocaust Foundation, and HBO.

Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by the Celeste Bartos Charitable Fund and by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

A Note on Personal Names:
In the correspondence, the spelling of personal names sometimes varies, and diminutives and nicknames are often used. In the exhibition we have adopted consistent forms for the names of individuals who are mentioned frequently; these names will not always match signatures, return addresses, or references within the letters themselves