Whenever I think we have heard every possible variation of the Holocaust experience, I’m surprised by yet another aspect of that monumental historic event. A new off-off-Broadway play, “Letters to Sala,” by Arlene Hutton, focuses on the network of labor camps the Nazis established across Europe, and the experiences of the mostly young people who were forced to work there. There were more than 30,000 of these camps, and millions of people went through them.
Hutton’s play has a fascinating and complicated back story, which becomes part of the action, not always to the play’s benefit. Sala Garncarz was a teenager when she stepped in for her sickly older sister and reported to the Geppersdorf labor camp in Germany. Geppersdorf was one of dozens of camps operated by Nazi leader Albrecht Schmelt to provide the German army with uniforms and other materiel. Sala was an experienced seamstress and a capable worker. Schmelt got his labor force from the Judenrat, or Jewish community leadership, at Sosnowiec, Sala’s home town. Schmelt did not care if his workers stayed in contact with their families via mail or received packages from home as long as they produced the products he needed. He barely fed them and housed them in unheated barracks; if and when they fell ill, they were shipped out to death camps and replaced by a new group of workers. It was a profitable business.
Very little of this context is clear in the play, so an uninformed viewer might come away with the impression that a Nazi labor camp was a bit like a rough outdoor-adventure trip. Indeed, Sala says “It will be an adventure” when she tries to convince her mother that she should go in her sister’s stead. Sala doesn’t look any worse for wear, either, as the years pass; her shoes don’t even scuff.
Sala received more than 300 letters, photos, and cards while she was held in seven labor camps over the five years of war and managed to save them all. She never spoke of these letters or of her ordeal to her daughter Ann Kirschner until she was facing open-heart surgery. Then she gave Ann the box containing the letters. Kirschner, dean of the Macaulay Honors College at City University, published the memoir “Sala’s Gift” in 2007, which tells her mother’s story and the surprising reaction of Kirschner’s own two daughters when she wanted to donate the letters to an institution. They are now part of the Dorot Jewish Division at the New York Public Library.
Co-produced by the Journey Company and F.A.B. Women@TBG at the TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, “Letters to Sala” imaginatively interweaves Sala’s story with that of her daughter Ann and her two teenage granddaughters. Hutton introduces and then skirts fascinating questions in relation to Holocaust memory: How great a responsibility do survivors have to tell their stories? How much right do we have to demand that they do? Do their experiences belong to themselves or to history? At what point does the desire to share those experiences become exploitative? What is the value of personal memorabilia that reflects on an important historical period?
Featuring a huge cast for an off-Broadway production, “Letters to Sala” attempts to draw connections between the teenage Sala and her giggly granddaughters. Sala makes friends in the camp and flirts with some male prisoners; she forges a close bond with an older woman who tries to protect her. She receives birthday greetings when she turns 20, and we see her try to celebrate Shabbat with paper candles. Meanwhile, her granddaughters are arguing with their mother about whether to donate Bubbie’s letters. For some reason that’s never made clear, the girls don’t want to, insisting the letters should stay in the family. There is an opportunity here for a deeper conversation, but Hutton does not seize it. That may be out of respect for Kirschner and her family, often a problem with commissioned pieces.
Britian Seibert plays Sala as a young woman, and Anita Keal portrays her when she was older. There are many young female characters in the play, and the playwright’s note says that she developed “Letters to Sala” to give young women an opportunity to perform Sala’s story and so share it with another generation. This production, directed by Eric Nightingale, feels teen friendly, from the focus on Sala’s friendships to her dalliances with two young men in the camps. Sometimes, a choice such as the girls waltzing with camp guards seems odd, even tasteless. Is the implication that the young women were forced — or chose — to become sexually involved with the guards? That’s a legitimate issue to address dramatically, but here it is so vague as to seem weird.
Performances continue until October 18.