The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Features

March 3, 2013

Exhibit relates drama of forced labor camps

JOHNSTOWN — A traveling art exhibit depicts life in labor camps through correspondences.

“Letters to Sala: A Young Woman’s Life in Nazi Labor Camps” will be on display March 10 through Aug. 31 at Heritage Discovery Center, 201 Sixth Ave. in the Cambria City section of Johnstown.

The exhibition provides a firsthand view of the human drama that unfolded among Jews forced to work as slave laborers during World War II through letters and other documents saved by one young woman from the time she entered a labor camp in 1940 until her liberation in 1945.

“The Holocaust and Israel’s subsequent statehood in 1948 are central to the Jewish experience, and it is fitting that the ‘Letters to Sala’ exhibition travels to Johnstown to complement the ‘Remembrance’ exhibit,” said Barry Rudel of Beth Sholom Congregation.

“Few communities around the country have benefited more from the teachings of tolerance than the Greater Johnstown area.

“Through the vision and generosity of Abe and Janet Beerman, more than 16,000 high school students from Cambria, Somerset and Bedford counties have visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

“Letters to Sala,” “Cinema Judaica: The War Years, 1939-1949” and “Remembrance: 150 Years of Jewish Life in Johnstown” are part of the yearlong Jewish Community Heritage Project, a collaborative effort between Johnstown Area Heritage Association and Beth Sholom.

Sala Garncarz was 16 years old in 1940 when she was sent to Geppersdorf, a German forced labor camp where Jewish men were building the autobahn and women worked in the laundry and kitchen.

During her internment, which took her to seven different camps in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, Garncarz received more than 300 letters that were mailed or smuggled to her by friends and family outside and inside the camps.

The exhibition contains about 100 postcards, letters, photographs, documents and other artifacts drawn primarily from the Sala Garncarz Collection of the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division.

The entire archive was donated to the library in 2005 by Garncarz and her family.

“The letters in this exhibition are the true embodiment of how the written word can give life,” said curator Jill Vexler.

“What emerges from the exhibition is an inspiring portrait of human resilience in the face of unthinkable atrocity.”

The letters portray a young woman through the eyes of those who loved her – a sister, a suitor and a camp mate.

For Garncarz, the letters provided evidence that her world still existed outside the camps, and her existence within them still mattered.

Some of the letters were written in elegant prose while others were hastily jotted down, highlighting the urgent circumstances of their composition.

The letters were Garncarz’s lifeline to the friends and family awaiting her release, and saving the letters became linked with preserving her own life.

Garncarz preserved the letters and continued to hide them for nearly 50 years following her liberation.

After her release in 1945, Garncarz located two of her sisters, the only surviving members of her family.

Less than a year after the camp was liberated, Garncarz married Sidney Kirschner, an American soldier, and moved to the United States.

The letters were hidden until Garncarz revealed their existence to her daughter, Ann Kirschner, before undergoing cardiac surgery in 1991.

“My family and I are delighted that, through the exhibition, the public will have the opportunity to learn my mother’s incredible story of survival and courage,” Kirschner said.

“When the world seemed entirely hostile, a young girl found refuge and hope in these remarkable letters written by her family and friends.

“Their words will be preserved and made accessible to the historians and artists whose insights will help future generations to understand the lessons of the past.”

Kirschner is author of “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story.”

The exhibition has been on tour since 2007 and has appeared in about 20 cities in the United States and Poland, as well as the U.S. Senate Rotunda.

Garncarz’s letters also are the subject of a play and a documentary film.

The Johnstown Community Heritage Project is funded by the Abe and Janet Beerman Fund at the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, the David A. Glosser Foundation, the William L. Glosser Family Fund, the Saul and Eva Glosser Memorial Fund and the United Johnstown Jewish Federation.  

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