Restrained, well-handled chronicle, told primarily through letters among family members, of the five years spent by the author’s mother in Nazi labor camps.
Sala Garncarz married an American GI at the end of the war and never spoke to her children about her experiences. In 1991, at age 67 and headed for triple-bypass surgery, she handed a box of letters to her daughter. Kirschner, a New York management consultant, translated them and unraveled a terrible saga. Sala was the youngest of 11 children in Sosnowiec, Poland, which before the war enjoyed a thriving Jewish culture much like that of Lódz and nearby Bedzin. At 16, she was rebellious and determined to take her older sister Raizel’s place when the occupying Nazis selected young people from poor homes to work in the growing labor camps. Her “job” was supposed to last for six weeks, but she was instead shuttled for five years among seven camps, part of the slave-labor network that sustained the Nazis’ wartime manufacturing and construction. Part of Sala’s amazing ability to survive was no doubt due to her skill at sewing; she became a seamstress and laundress for the German officers, chosen and accepted as “one clean Jew.” She was also a leader among her peers, attractive and well-liked. Early on, she formed a protective friendship with an older woman named Ala Gertner, and relationships with various men helped her secure favored treatment. Unlike concentration camps such as Auschwitz (where most of her family perished after the roundup at Sosnowiec on Aug. 12, 1942), labor camps permitted inmates to send and receive letters, which were jealously hoarded as frail ties to family and truth. Kirschner allows her mother’s poignant story to emerge from these heartbreaking missives, filling in the gaps with a dignified, quietly eloquent connecting narrative.
A cold-eyed look at one woman’s incredible journey through hell and back.