As a child and young adult, Ann Kirschner knew almost nothing of her mother’s background — only that she was born in Poland, and that she was a Holocaust survivor. For 50 years, her mother, Sala Garncarz Kirschner, spoke not one word about the five years that she spent in seven different labor camps, and the losses she suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
But all that changed on July 4, 1991, when, at the age of 67, Sala was about to undergo open-heart surgery and no longer wished to remain silent.
“My mother came to the United States as a war bride, with a tiny little suitcase,” said Ann Kirschner in a phone interview. “But she also brought over 350 letters, photographs and documents that she had preserved at the risk of her life. When she brought me that box of letters, it changed my life.”
The revelation of those letters and other documents led to Kirschner’s book “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story,” in which she tells her mother’s tale of being forced to work as part of Organization Schmelt in slave labor camps. “Sala’s Gift,” which was published in 2006, led in turn to “Letters to Sala,” a play by Arlene Hutton, which had its local premiere at Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg last fall.
Now, thanks to Classrooms Without Borders, thousands of area middle and high school students will get a chance to see Sala’s story brought to life on the stage.
CWB, a nonprofit educational organization founded by Zipora Gur in association with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, provided funding for 225 area students to attend Little Lake’s production of “Letters to Sala” last November. Realizing the full impact of the play, this year CWB commissioned Little Lake to reprise its production, and take it on the road for six weeks to the schools themselves.
“We will have eight performances of the show at middle schools and high schools in Pittsburgh and Ohio,” said Jena Oberg, the artistic director of Little Lake, and director of the production. In addition, she said, there will be two free performances open to the public: one at Carnegie Mellon University on Nov. 13 at 10 a.m., and another at Duquesne University on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m.
“Our students who came here last year responded really well to the show,” Oberg said. “The story, which is told through a girl who is 16 at the start, allowed the students to connect to the character. And the story is different than ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ because here you get to have the victory of her survival, and learn what she did after the war as well.”
Sala Kirschner is now 92 and living with her husband and daughter in New York City.
The show will be traveling with an exhibit of the letters and other documents that Sala preserved, now on loan from the New York Public Library. CWB will also provide pre- and post-curriculum development and support, including a talk featuring Ann Kirschner and Arlene Hutton following the performances at CMU and Duquesne.
“This play is special in that it provides opportunities for learning,” said Melissa Haviv, CWB’s assistant director of programming. “There are so many different opportunities for teaching the Holocaust through this story. There is a whole bunch of information that is not really out there.”
Information contained in the play that may not otherwise be taught to the students includes the differences between a labor camp and a concentration camp, and how it happened that Sala could receive all this mail. (Prisoners at labor camps were permitted to receive mail, although they were not permitted to keep it.)
Kirschner recalls the day her mother showed her the letters.
“I was genuinely excited,” she said. “I know a thing or two about rare books and manuscripts, and I knew that these were extraordinarily rare, primary source material. All those years, I had suppressed my questions, but now the floodgates were opened. It was like I had the key to the treasure box.”
From that day on, the letters have been Ann Kirschner’s “constant companion,” she said. “It is my honor to preserve, protect and disseminate them.”
Sala has been able to enjoy the impact that her story has had on others, according to her daughter.
“It’s incredible to her,” Kirschner said. “Sometimes students will Skype with her. She’s deeply, deeply moved. She is generally a private person, but she understands that this is a way to honor her family and friends.”
When Kirschner took her mother to see a production of the play at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., she was not sure how her mother would react.
“I was consumed with anxiety,” Kirschner recalled. “The actors were playing her, her mother, her sister. Then the lights went up and I was frightened on her behalf. But she looked at me and said, ‘It’s ok. It’s only a play.’ That reminded me how psychologically healthy she is.”
CWB expects to impact up to 5,000 students with its commissioned performances of the play, according Haviv.
The schools which will be hosting the performances are: Sewickley Academy; North Allegheny Intermediate High School; Carlynton Junior/Senior High School; Old Trail School in Akron, Ohio; Winchester Thurston School; Pittsburgh Allderdice; Upper St. Clair High School; and Mt. Lebanon High School.
Eight members of last year’s 16-person cast are returning to the traveling production of “Letters to Sala,” according to Oberg.
The play, along with the exhibit of Sala’s documents, will provide a “hands-on, brought-to-life way for the kids to learn,” Oberg said.
For more information, go to classroomswithoutborders.org.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.