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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

There have been a lot of exhibits on the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, but much less is known about life in Nazi labor camps. A vast network of labor camps was built in Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. Well, today, the New York Public Library opened an extraordinary window into life in those camps, and the experiences of one young Jewish woman. NPR's Margot Adler reports on an exhibition called Letters to Sala.

MARGOT ADLER: Sala Garncarz was interned in seven different Nazi labor camps between 1940 and 1945. She worked as a seamstress, and although conditions were often harsh, unlike concentration camps, laborers could sometimes receive and send mail. At the age 16, she left her home in Poland and entered the Geppersdorf Camp, choosing to go instead of her more fragile older sister. Over the next five years, she kept every piece of mail she received, more than 300 letters, postcards, drawings, and photographs. At times, she hid the letters in her clothes, and even buried them, but managed to take them secretly from camp to camp. After the war, she married an American G.I., and she hid the letters from her family for more than 45 years.

In 1991, before going into the hospital for heart surgery, she gave the letters to her daughter, Ann Kirschner, who says her life changed in an instant.

ANN KIRSCHNER, Host:

It became my privilege to do what very few daughters have been able to do, which is to get to know their own mother as a brave and beautiful 16-year-old girl trying to navigate the most hostile of circumstances with courage and with integrity.

ADLER: In the small room that houses the exhibit, there's a vitality that comes through the pictures and letters. There are postcards from family members, and notes from people at other work camps, detailing life both inside and outside during the war years. There's also the extraordinary story of Ala Gertner(ph), a sophisticated woman who took Sala under her wing, and later was one of four women hanged as resistance fighters at Auschwitz, for helping to cause an explosion at one of the crematoriums. There are also surprising things, little birthday cards Sala received from other women in the camp, some of them with drawings of flowers and bows. Jill Vexler(ph) is the curator of the exhibition.

JILL VEXLER: How were they getting paper? Much less ink, much less colors. And I finally said, so, Sala, who did you get these? And she said, well, there were people bringing in supplies, and they truck drivers, and they weren't all bad people. So, they would bring us post cards, and we would trade things for them.

ADLER: Vexler reads a poignant from Sala's sister Riesel. "Do you know why I write so much? Because as long as I read, we are together."

VEXLER: They weren't just letters representing her friends and her family, they were her friends and family, and as long as she saved them, they were alive, and therefore, she was alive.

ADLER: Sala Garncarz Kirschner is now in her 80's. Sitting next to her daughter Ann at a preview, she spoke softly, describing why she hid the letters in a closet for so long after the war--how seeing them now in public made her feel naked. Still, she was happy to give them to history.

SALA GARNCARZ KIRSCHNER: I wasn't worried anymore so much, because the children were all grown up. They will understand it, and they won't have the burden to be raised with guilt feeling the about the mother that went through that.

ADLER: Ann Kirschner says she understands her mother's long silence, wanting to live in the present, and not wanting to burden her children with her nightmares.

KIRSCHNER: I've met other children of survivors who were overburdened, who came out with a, you know, sort of a pessimistic view of the world, and a sense of fear, and a lack of interest in their parent's history, because they'd had too much of it.

ADLER: But these letters, she says, are more than a family's chronicle of survival. They document a vast network of Nazi slave labor camps, about which very little has been written, even today. The letters will be on exhibit through June 17th, and will remain a part of the library's collections. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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