Ann Kirschner says she felt like she was “struck by lightning” when, as an adult, she first learned of her mother’s stash of Holocaust-era photographs and letters.
“She kept them secret until she thought she was going to die,” Kirschner says, in a phone interview from New York. “Out of nowhere, she hands me this box. I thought it was going to be jewelry.”
The box was full of memorabilia that her mom saved during years spent in Nazi labor camps from 1940-45.
The historic documents are on view at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco in an exhibit called “Letters to Sala: A Young Woman’s Life in Nazi Labor Camps” and curated by Jill Vexler.
Kirschner, whose companion book is “Sala’s Gift,” will be in San Francisco to talk about her mother’s story and her project, which was years in the making.
In 1991, soon after receiving the material — including hundreds of letters, mostly in German, like “pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” — Kirschner gave them to translators, but she was unable to convince publishers to consider the topic for a book.
In 2003, her aunt, who had been her mother’s most prolific correspondent, died. Kirschner then put a new focus on the project, deciding to donate the documents to an appropriate institution.
In consultation with archives around the country, she learned that there was no collection like it — letters written to one particular young person during the course of several years — anywhere in the world.
After the New York Public Library was interested in creating an exhibit, Kirschner says, a book deal followed.
Meanwhile, Kirschner’s mother, Sala Garncarz Kirschner, survived the cardiac surgery that prompted her to share the memories that she kept hidden from her daughter for so long.
Her motivation for not doing that sooner, Kirschner says, was that she “was afraid that these letters that had saved her life might be dangerous.” Also, she wanted her children to be “regular American kids” untainted by such difficult memories.
Growing up, Kirschner knew very little about her mom’s past, that she was interned in seven labor camps in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia beginning when she was just 16.
“The reverberations are not insignificant,” says Kirschner, describing that lack of knowledge and being the child of a Holocaust survivor.
Of course, she’s pleased with the effect her project has on readers and viewers: “It has a strong impact on young people. I see them caught up in this story of a young girl thrust [into] the middle of a war.”
After all the years, the letters her mom clandestinely saved “are in remarkably good condition” — a metaphor for life — Kirschner says.
Her mom’s reaction to the show and book, Kirschner says, was that of feeling “exposed,” but at the same time being pleased that she did something important, which she sees reflected in her children, grandchildren and even strangers.
IF YOU GO
Letters to Sala
Where: Snyder Gallery, Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., San Francisco
When: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays-Sundays; closes Jan. 31
Note: Kirschner will appear at 6:30 p.m. Monday to speak and sign books; RSVP required; call (415) 292-1233