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Play Opens a Box Filled With Holocaust History

Letters to Sala

By Jeffrey Overstreet (

Sala Garncarz Kirschner
Sala Garncarz Kirschner, pictured here as a young girl, was taken into Nazi labor camps when she was only 16. Photo Courtesy of the Sala Garncarz Kirschner Collection / Dorot Jewish Division / New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

As Sala Garncarz Kirschner, a 67-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, prepared for triple bypass surgery, she decided to share with her family the secret she had kept for almost half a century.

It was a revelation: A collection of wartime letters in Polish, German, and Yiddish that Sala had received during five years in Nazi labor camps. Sala, the daughter of a Polish rabbi and teacher, was taken from her home in 1940, when she was only 16. She hid the letters written by family and friends throughout her years of forced labor, even as many of her loved ones were sent away to death camps. Sala's act of preserving these letters and postcards gave her the heart to survive until liberation in 1945.

But she waited until 1991 to tell her daughter that she had once been imprisoned, and to give her the letters, hidden in what appeared to be a box for a game called “Spill and Spell.”

In time, those letters inspired her daughter, Ann Kirschner, to write a book called Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story, which in turn inspired a play by Arlene Hutton. Now the Northwest premiere of Letters to Sala is taking place in Seattle Pacific University's McKinley Hall April 18–20 and 25–27, 2013. SPU will welcome both Kirschner and Hutton for a conversation with the audience.

SPU Fine Arts Marketing Associate Kim Gilnett says, “It's a unique opportunity for our students to have a playwright share a work that she has just finished.”

Accompanying the play, “Letters to Sala: A Young Woman's Life in Nazi Labor Camps” — a special exhibition of facsimiles from Sala's letters — will be on display in McKinley Hall's Dorothy Boyd Kreider Gallery. Together, the play and the exhibit are an Inaugural Year Academic Showcase event.

This is the fourth of Hutton's plays that George Scranton, professor of theatre, has directed at Seattle Pacific. Hutton heard great things about his production of As It Is In Heaven, but she came to SPU to see Gulf View Drive (in 2010) for herself.

“I was overwhelmed with the SPU production,” she says. “It was lovely, with a fine attention to detail and the best set design I've ever seen for that play.”

The dates of the SPU Letters production are close to Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) on April 8, 2013. “We must keep telling the story of the Holocaust,” says Hutton, “and learn lessons from those horrible times. It's important to know the stories of our grandparents and to keep alive the memories of those who are no longer with us.”

As casting is underway, students in University Core classes are reading Kirschner's book, Sala's Gift.

“This is a strong statement about community,” says Don Yanik, SPU Theatre Department chair and set designer. “Bringing a book, a script, a playwright, an author, and an audience together is remarkable.”