Every story from the Holocaust illustrates a way of life for Jews in Nazi Germany. They are all tragic in their own ways, and the stories of survivors continue to amaze generations later.
The story of one young girl is on vivid display right now in a Johnstown exhibit called "Letters to Sala: A Young Woman's Life in Nazi Labor Camps," at the Frank & Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center through Aug. 31.
The display features letters written by Sala Garnacz, a Jew from Sosnowiec, Poland, who was sent to a German forced-labor camp called Geppersdorf in 1940, when she was just 16 years old. During her time there, and in a series of other labor camps through 1945, Sala kept up a fiercely loyal back-and-forth letter-writing campaign to friends and family, letting them know about her whereabouts.
According to the New York Public Library, the portrait at right is the earliest known image of Sala Garncarz-Kirschner, taken when she was 12 years old. It was among the personal items that Sala kept with her throughout her time in German labor camps during World War II.
The labor camps in the Nazi regime forced civilians from conquered countries into manual labor in the German infrastructure, working on the German military assembly lines and in some German corporations.
Somehow, she kept the letters she received - more than 300 by the time she was liberated in 1945 - with her as she went from camp to camp. Those letters are the basis for the exhibition in Johnstown.
"[The exhibit is] the story of a really remarkable young Polish girl who was sent to a German labor camp - never to an actual concentration camp - and managed not only to survive, but she was an avid letter writer and she managed to save them all," said Shelley Johansson, director of communications and marketing at the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
If you go
What: "Letters to Sala: A Young Woman's Life in Nazi Labor Camps"
When: Through Aug. 31
Where: The Frank & Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center, 201 Sixth Ave., Johnstown
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Admission: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for children ages 3 to 18 (Children 2 and younger are admitted free)
"It's a pretty remarkable feat, considering the situation she was in."
Shortly after Sala was freed from the German camps, she met and fell in love with an American soldier, Sidney Kirschner. The two married and she moved with him to New York City in 1946.
"Over and over throughout her story, someone who should not have helped her, did. And she was able to survive," Johansson said. "After her liberation, she married an American GI and moved to America. And she hid these letters. In 1991, she gave them to her daughter before she was about to have heart surgery."
Sala's need to share her history before a serious medical procedure led to the collection of letters, photographs and documents being donated to the New York Public Library by her daughter, writer Ann Kirschner. Her remarkable collection was copied and made into a traveling exhbition, sponsored by the French Children of the Holocauset Foundation, which has toured the country. (The original documents are kept at the New York Public Library, as part of its Dorot Jewish Division.)
Sala's dedication to keeping her family together through the letter writing is echoed in the reason she hid her collection for so long; Despite her struggles, she wanted her family to rise above her past.
"She said she hid the letters, 'Because I didn't want my children to hate because of what happened to me,'" Johansson explained.
Sala, who is still alive and splitting her time living in New York and Florida, has seen her story told again and again: by her daughter in the book "Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story"; in a play by writer Arlene Hutton; and in an
in-development documentary by director Murray Nossel.
The traveling exhibit is a natural fit for Johnstown right now, because the Heritage Discovery Center is presenting the Johnstown Jewish Community Project this year.
"The goal of the project is to celebrate 125 years of Jewish culture in Johnstown," Johansson said. "That was the time when Jews first organized and began to celebrate [service] in Johnstown. ... The Jewish immigrants really came to the area with plans to stay. A lot of folks, it was not their intent to stay forever, but to earn money and go back home.
"The Jewish immigrants came intending to stay. There are many positive effects from that community."
The curator of the Johnstown Jewish Community Project, Kaytlin Sumner, says the "Letters to Sala" exhibit paints a picture of life in the Nazi labor camps that may fascinate today's audience.
"All of the letters were transalated and when you come to see the exhibit, you can read those," she said. "It's a great activity for kids to go around and look at the beautiful writing and compare it to how we write today."
According to Sumner, the Heritage Discovery Center was able to bring "Letters to Sala" to Johnstown thanks to area donors. The Johnstown Jewish Community Project - which has been created in conjunction with Congregation Beth Shalom in Johnstown - has also featured a lecture series, film nights and special curriculums for teachers who want to use the exhibit in their lessons.
The Project's main exhibit is "Remembrance: 125 years of Jewish Life in Johnstown," which explores the history of the Jewish residents in Johnstown.
"What is really nice about the project is that I was able to meet so many members of the Johnstown Jewish community," Sumner said. "And so many of them offered stories and photos and artifacts [for the exhibit]."
"Remembrance," which has been on display since last fall, will close on Sept. 3.
"After it leaves us, it will be permanently enshrined in the Beth Shalom Congregation in Westmont," Sumner said.
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.