Keeping People Alive

Letters to a Polish girl in a Nazi labor camp transform into a play

One day, Invisible Theatre's Susan Claassen took a break from bidding on eBay auctions of Edith Head costumes, and googled "Jewish plays." The query returned a link to a New York Public Library exhibit and reading of letters a young woman had received while she was interned at Nazi labor camps during World War II.

"It was bashert!" Claassen says, using the Yiddish word meaning "destined." Claassen knew immediately that she wanted to develop the reading into a full production at Invisible Theatre. "The source material is riveting," she says. "It's the epic story of a pretty extraordinary person."

The resulting play, Letters to Sala, opens March 20 and runs through April 8.

The girl in question, Sala Garncarz, was a Polish teen who volunteered to take her older sister's place in what was supposedly a six-week assignment to a labor camp. It turned into a five-year imprisonment, but Sala was not entirely isolated. She had many correspondents: her sister Raizel, who kept her informed of events in the outside world; a persistent suitor named Harry Haubenstock; a friend named Ala Gertner, who would take part in the only armed uprising at Auschwitz, and be hanged for her trouble. There were other pen pals, too, sending Sala hundreds of letters by the end of the war.

This is not an Anne Frank story, in which our plucky heroine ends up dead, like most of her family and millions of other Jews. No, Sala survived the war, married an American GI, settled in the United States, raised a family ... and kept her treasure trove of letters a secret from her children. Only in 1991, when she was about to undergo heart surgery, did she entrust her archive to her adult kids, just in case she didn't survive. (She did.)

"My mother's primary motive in keeping these letters hidden," says daughter Ann Kirschner, "was protecting her children, because she felt that somehow, these letters were dangerous; they might somehow frighten us. She wanted us to be 'regular American kids,' whatever that meant--she wasn't sure. She was being a little protective of herself, too, because these letters brought her back to a painful time."

After holding Sala's letters and photographs for 10 years, sharing them with her own children, and researching the people who'd written to Sala and sent her their photographs, Kirschner decided to make the archive public, donating it to the New York Public Library and unveiling it with a special exhibition and the reading that caught Claassen's attention.

Kirschner's own daughters thought it was a terrible idea.

"They saw the letters as private family history," Kirschner explains, "and they believed in almost a special power that these originals had, and they felt it was their birthright, and were not terribly interested in the needs of strangers, of scholars and historians they'd never met." Kirschner, herself a scholar (she's university dean of the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York), prevailed. Not only did the library arrangement go through, but she wrote a book about her mother's experiences, Sala's Gift.

That book and the letters became the basis of the play to be premiered at IT, written by Arlene Hutton and directed by Claassen. New York director Larry Sacharow was intimately involved in the play's development from the beginning, but died last August.

Kirschner's children, who had initially been so protective of the letters and their grandmother's privacy, have come to accept the play. "There's still a little concern on my children's part that my mother has suddenly become a public figure," Kirschner says. "On the other hand, they're so proud of her, so the play feels like a way for the rest of the world to appreciate an extraordinary woman they've enjoyed all their lives."

Except that the woman they've known all their lives is rather different from the Sala of the labor camps. Or at least it seemed that way when Kirschner started reading the old letters sent to her mother.

"You're only hearing half a conversation," she says. "You see her in silhouette, a reflection of what other people say about her. Through their eyes, I saw a bold and energetic young woman who was looking for adventure, who was eager to see something of the world, and who loved her family and her friends so dearly.

"And that surprised me, because you grow up thinking of your parents as responsible people who worry if you're too adventuresome; parents are about setting boundaries, not taking risks. So it did surprise me that my mother was as much of a risk-taker as she was, and had this feisty independence and an absolute determination that she would have control of her life in some way despite the constraints of the war."

The play Letters to Sala is not a simple epistolary reading, Claassen says. The letters are the basis of everything that happens, but the story shifts back and forth in time, with Jetti Ames playing Sala in her later years and Rebecca Beren portraying the young Sala. Amy Almquist, Nate Weisband and Rachel Lacy play a variety of other characters.

"By passing on these letters," Claassen says, "Sala is keeping these other people alive."

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