Sun, Jun 12, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Letter trove provides window on Nazi labor camps

DETAILED RECORD 300 letters and a diary paint a moving portrait of a 16-year-old Jewish girl's miserable daily existence in seven labor camps over several years

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

They are the yellowed letters and postcards a teenage girl saved from her camps of long ago, laced with news of giddy crushes and confessions of homesickness. But Sala Garncarz Kirschner's camps were no summertime getaway.

Starting in 1940 when she was 16 and until the end of World War II, Kirschner was an inmate in seven Nazi labor camps, yet she managed to squirrel away 300 pieces of correspondence and a brief diary.

"I could not stop looking at you mother, because I felt something inside of me tearing, hurting," the young woman wrote in her diary on Oct. 28, 1940, the day she said goodbye at her hometown train station. "One more kiss, one more hug, and my mother does not want to let go of me. Let it go already, it is torture."

The trove, which astonishingly includes a photograph taken inside the camp of Kirschner and a boyfriend wearing a Jewish star, offers piercing glimpses into the world of the labor camps, where despite guards and dogs, life was less hellish than in the concentration camps. While individual inmate letters have been compiled before, Steve Luckert, a curator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, describes the Kirschner archive as extraordinary in quantity and in the breadth of time it covers.

Now, Kirschner's daughter, Ann, a Princeton-educated literary academic, has had the correspondence translated and has given all but two dozen items to the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, which will keep the archive in the Dorot Jewish Division and exhibit it next March. David Ferriero, the director of the institution's research libraries, said, "It's primary documentation in a way that doesn't exist in any other form, a firsthand account of what was going on."

Almost as compelling as the letters is the story of why it took so long for them to see the light of day. Ann Kirschner did not know about them until 1991, when her mother, facing triple bypass surgery, went to her Fire Island home and handed her a battered cardboard box.

"These are my letters from the war," she said.

Sala Kirschner revealed how she hid the letters from guards, burying them for one stretch, because she wanted to hold onto traces of a family she might never see again.

"They were my only link to my past," Kirschner, a soft-spoken woman of 81 with lively blue eyes, said in an interview in her home in Monsey, New York. "If I was lonely, I would take out these letters and read them over and over again. It was my way of feeling close to them."

Except for the diary and one unmailed letter, the writings in spidery German and Polish longhand, were by others -- her sister, boyfriend, other inmates and hometown friends. The letters Kirschner sent were lost in the war's tumult.

Though daily existence in the labor camps was miserable, the Germans wanted the world to believe that life was proceeding normally. Kirschner could send and receive mail, but it had to pass a censor.

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