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Survivor’s daughter shares mother’s recorded history

Ann Kirschner’s mother, Sala Garncarz Kirschner, arrived at her daughter’s home in July 1991 with a box filled with postcards.

“She said, ‘These are my letters from camp.’ That was it,” Kirschner said.

The “camps” to which Sala Garncarz Kirschner referred, however, were Nazi labor camps. And the letters she received from a variety of correspondents span the years from 1940 to 1945.

After years of research, Kirschner turned the contents of those 320 letters her mother received while confined in the camps into the 2006 biography, “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story.” The book has since been published in seven other languages and adapted into a play, and the New York Public Library created a traveling exhibit from the letters, which were donated by the Kirschner family in 2004.

That exhibit can be seen at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library’s meeting room, located at 645 N.W. Monroe Ave., through April 30.

Kirschner discussed the exhibit and her experience with her mother’s story Monday afternoon at the library, and gave a talk at LaSells Stewart Center in the evening to launch Oregon State University’s 26th annual Holocaust Memorial Week.

The annual observance typically features talks from scholars and Holocaust survivors and their children (and, in the past, grandchildren) to combat prejudice by remembering the genocide of millions of Europeans, including 6 million Jews, during Nazi rule.

Most Nazi concentration and labor camps were liberated at the end of the European stage of World War II in 1945, and therefore most witnesses of the Holocaust are elderly or have since passed away. But Paul Kopperman, OSU history professor and chair of the Holocaust Memorial Committee, said the stories and experiences from Holocaust survivors’ children can powerfully connect people with the past.

“It’s more than just knowing the history. It’s being able to personalize the history, and to show some intimacy with it,” Kopperman said.

Since the release of “Sala’s Gift,” Kirschner has traveled throughout the nation and world and has given talks about the experience of her mother, now 88 and whom Kirschner describes as a private person.

Personal items such as saved correspondence generally weren’t allowed in camps. With the help of friends she had made in various camps, Sala meticulously smuggled her stash to her seven different labor camps.

The letters, received from 80 people, begin in 1940, when 16-year-old Sala left her family home in western Poland for a labor camp. They continue through 1945, when her last camp was liberated.

Sala took them with her when she moved to New York City in 1946 with her new husband, Sydney Kirschner, an American who served in Europe during the war. Sala kept the letters secret for nearly 50 years, only giving them to Kirschner shortly before undergoing open-heart surgery.

Kirschner said handling her mother’s memories as a child of a Holocaust survivor requires both responsibility and humility. With that in mind, she’s been thrilled to see Sala’s tale reach so many.

“It’s not just a Jewish story,” Kirschner said. “It’s a universal story of history and hope.”

Contact Gazette-Times reporter Gail Cole at 541-758-9510 or gail.cole@gazettetimes.com.

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