Sala's Gift

My Mother's Holocaust Story

About The Book

"Do you know why I write so much? Because as long as you read, we are together."
-- Raizel Garncarz (Sala's sister),
April 24, 1941


Few family secrets have the power both to transform lives and to fill in crucial gaps in world history. But then, few families have a mother and a daughter quite like Sala and Ann Kirschner. For nearly fifty years, Sala kept a secret: She had survived five years as a slave in seven different Nazi work camps. Living in America after the war, she kept from her children any hint of her epic, inhuman odyssey. She held on to more than 350 letters, photographs, and a diary without ever mentioning them. Only in 1991, on the eve of heart surgery, did she suddenly present them to Ann and offer to answer any questions her daughter wished to ask. It was a life-changing moment for her scholar, writer, and entrepreneur daughter.

We know surprisingly little about the vast network of Nazi labor camps, where imprisoned Jews built railroads and highways, churned out munitions and materiel, and otherwise supported the limitless needs of the Nazi war machine. This book gives us an insider's account: Conditions were brutal. Death rates were high. As the war dragged on and the Nazis retreated, inmates were force-marched across hundreds of miles, or packed into cattle cars for grim journeys from one camp to another. When Sala first reported to a camp in Geppersdorf, Poland, at the age of sixteen, she thought it would be for six weeks. Five years later, she was still at a labor camp and only she and two of her sisters remained alive of an extended family of fifty. In the first years of the conflict, Sala was aided by her close friend Ala Gertner, who would later lead an uprising at Auschwitz and be executed just weeks before the liberation of that camp. Sala was also helped by other key friends. Yet above all, she survived thanks to the slender threads of support expressed in the letters of her friends and family. She kept them at great personal risk, and it is astonishing that she was able to receive as many as she did. With their heartwrenching expressions of longing, love, and hope, they offer a testament to the human spirit, an indomitable impulse even in the face of monstrosity.

Sala's Gift is a rare book, a gift from Ann to her mother, and a great gift from both women to the world.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
Sala's Gift
By Ann Kirschner

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think Ann Kirschner effectively strung together her mother's vast collection of letters with the information she gleaned from Sala's diary, survivor interviews, and her own library research to create a cohesive narrative?

  2. Was there any particular correspondence in the text that moved you the most by? What different emotions did you experience as you encountered each new letter? What feelings or conclusions do you think Ann Kirschner hoped you would carry away from this book?

  3. While the Holocaust was a time of unimaginable horror and inhumanity, it was also a time in which incredible generosity, selflessness, and bravery were demonstrated under the most difficult of circumstances. Sala relied on a network of supporters, such as Ala, the group of protecting male prisoners at Geppersdorf that included Chaim Kaufman and Bernhard Holtz, the Pachta family, and of course her family and friends. In what particular way do you think each of these people helped Sala survive her time in the labor camps? Is there one person who you believe played the most significant role in her survival?

  4. Ala, Sala's most dear friend during the war, is unanimously praised throughout various letters in the book for her inspiring spirit and her unwavering, pragmatic resolve. Kirschner wonders what motivated her to join the resistance movement at Auschwitz [p. 243]. What is your take on Ala's decision to put herself in great danger? Did she die a noble death?

  5. Did it come as a surprise that Sala did not see her sisters in Sweden after they were liberated and hospitalized and instead remained in Ansbach with Sydney? Beyond her engagement to Sydney, what may have motivated Sala to move to America without seeing her sisters first, even after suffering through heartbreaking years of separation and fear that they may not have survived?

  6. After suffering the crushing defeat of discovering Sosnowiec emptied of any hint of her family's previous life there, it appeared Sala had happily left it behind forever. Were you surprised to discover that Sala was willing to return with her children to Kollataja Street and the sites where the labor and death camps had once stood? Do you think that Sala found what she was looking for during her return visit?

  7. Kirschner refers to the comparisons that she observed being made among survivors between the Nazi labor camps and the death camps, "Four days in Auschwitz...five years in seven different labor camps. My mother had lost her parents, sisters, brothers...I do not want to compare. Some threshold of suffering defies measurement." [p.6]. After reading the book, do you agree with this assessment? Do you think that Sala and the other labor camp survivors would agree?

  8. Discuss Sala's heroism. In what moments was she particularly courageous? Were there any instances when she displayed weakness? Was Raizel heroic?

  9. Before the postscript, Kirschner closes her narrative with a letter that Raizel wrote to her mother after they were both liberated. "One thing you should know, Sala, is that the acknowledgment of one's guilt can mitigate it, but only if one starts to reform oneself. Let us forgive each other everything, and together ask forgiveness for the sins we committed against our dear parents. All alone, all alone, in peace and quiet, and filled with our own thoughts, we must be satisfied by self-reproach and rectification through good deeds." [p. 260] What do you make of Raizel's words? In what ways was the relationship between Sala and Raizel affected by all of the events resulting from the Holocaust? Why do you think Kirschner picked this to be the last letter referenced in the book?

  10. Did surviving the Holocaust, affect religion or spirituality among the survivors in Sala's Gift? In what ways? What might you expect to happen to someone's faith after living through such an experience?

  11. What were your feelings about the Holocaust prior to reading Sala's Gift? Have they changed at all now, having read the book? If so, in what way? What account(s) had previously shaped your perception of this infamous moment in history?


Enhance Your Book Club Experience
  1. Search within the New York Public Library's website, www.nypl.org, to view some of the letters preserved as The Sala Garncarz Kirschner Collection. You'll find several original letters and photographs, and discover information regarding where and if the exhibition is currently showing at any particular branch. If possible, travel with your group to view the collection, or simply view it together on the Internet.

  2. Do you have any correspondences from older relatives saved in a collection? Bring these, or anything that you have that may revealed something about a member of your family, to the meeting and discuss their importance to you.

  3. Read The Diary of Anne Frank as a companion text. How did her story differ from Sala's? In what ways are they the same?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Ann Kirschner is University Dean of Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She began her career as a lecturer in Victorian literature at Princeton University, where she had earned a Ph.D. in English. A writer and contributor to a variety of newspapers and other publications, she has built a career as an entrepreneur in media and technology. She lives with her family in New York City, a short drive from her mother's home.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (November 7, 2006)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416542582

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Raves and Reviews

"Kirschner allows her mother's poignant story to emerge from these heartbreaking missives, filling in the gaps with a dignified, quietly eloquent connecting narrative...[an] incredible journey through hell and back." -- Kirkus (starred review)

"Sala Kirschner spent five years as a slave in Nazi camps as a teen. Now her daughter has gathered Sala's vintage snapshots and the letters that reached her in the camps into a moving volume." -- People

"Evidence of humanity in the face of terrible conditions and of the religious faith and ritual that persisted despite the Nazi campaign to eliminate the Jews." -- The New York Times Book Review

"Sala's unique, stirring end-of-life gift are the letters and photos she received from her sister Raizel when Sala was a slave laborer.... A touching, interesting, and valuable history, one in which the personalities of the principals shine through the wretchedness." -- Jewish Book World

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