Letters to Sala
a play by Arlene Hutton
Hutton, Arlene. Letters to Sala. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2013.
(Note: For visual representation of the play and links to photos of Sala’s letters, please see the Resources below. Since Letters to Sala is a staged production, it may be helpful to look through visual images of this performance for additional understanding of the staging.)
Performance / casting information: 4 men, 12 women. (Flexible casting could be up to 5 men, 21 women)
Overview by Kandace Arens
Letters to Sala is a play about Ann Kirschner’s discovery of her mother’s hidden letters from seven Nazi labor camps. This play is loosely based on the true story depicted in the book Sala’s Gift, written by Ann Kirschner herself. For fifty years, Ann’s mother Sala kept these letters secret, hidden in a box that only she knew about. However, one day, when Sala is very ill and concerned she might not recover, she shares these letters with her family, finally speaking about her experiences in the labor camps.
Letters to Sala dramatizes Ann’s discovery of a heritage she didn’t know she had. During her discovery, the audience relives Sala’s experience of the labor camps through the letters that Ann reads. The story switches from past to present and back again as Ann learns more about her mother’s life. As Ann watches the scenes from her mother’s life, she realizes what a powerful gift her mother’s letters could be to the world and struggles with her role in sharing this history. Letters to Sala explores the power of communication both during the Holocaust, when so many families were irrevocably separated from each other, and today, as we remember the crimes committed against the Jews.
The play begins with a split stage. On one side: Sosnowiec, Poland 1941. On the other: New York City 2005. The dichotomy of the two worlds is immediately apparent. The audience meets two versions of Sala – a young girl during WWII on one side of the stage, and an elderly survivor on the other. Hutton presents the audience with a simultaneous telling of the present and the past, blending and overlapping the two worlds. In the past, Young Sala’s mother, sister, and grandmother struggle over a letter informing them to report to a labor camp while, in the present, older Sala shares her hidden box of letters (tucked away in the box of a children’s boardgame!) with her children and grandchildren. The imagery of letter-writing and the power of words is woven throughout.
Letters to Sala depicts the five years that Sala spent in the labor camps throughout Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia. It is told through the punctuated narrative of her letters as the next generation encounters them for the first time. An older version of Sala watches as her younger self is separated from her sisters, mother, and father, and struggles to “show her usefulness” in the labor camps. Young Sala connects with a variety of people: an older woman, Ala Gertner, who arranges for her to work as a seamstress; a young shoemaker, Chaim, who falls in love with her; a German girl, Efriede, who gives her cake and takes her walking. But each relationship is fleeting: pieces of the story are broken, missing, or blurred, the way that memories often are. The stage movement is fluid, only assembling for short moments rather than longer scenes.
Alongside the story of the past is the story of the present. At the forefront is Sala’s daughter Ann and her decision of what to do with the letters. Sala’s granddaughters believe they should be kept in the family, but Ann feels they must be shared and belong in a museum. The daughters want to keep their heritage within the family, but Ann believes the world needs to know Sala’s story.
Letters to Sala is about the power of words and communication in a historical, biographical piece. As Sala says, “I have all the mail I received from home, starting from the first minute that I left for camp. Because if I lost them, these people would die. I keep them alive by saving the letters.”
And so, the audience is confronted with question: how do we honor our memories of the past?
Letters to Sala is a valuable text for performance in high school because of its accessibility, casting needs, and theme. Young Sala is 16 when she leaves home, which may help adolescents identify with her experiences. There is a wide variety of casting opportunities for students, especially women, with opportunity for a cast up to 26. Excerpts of scenes may also be used for smaller performance projects, especially scenes between Sala and her daughter Ann, and Young Sala and Ala.
There is always an added challenge of speaking about the Holocaust, especially when depicting a biographical story. Upon purchase for production rights from Dramatist’s Play Service, Letters to Sala provides additional copies of Sala’s letters, photographs and other images to support the text, so that productions may display these during performances as an added form of support. Letters to Sala does not contain swearing or excessive depictions of violence. The play deals with these sensitive subjects in an abstract, poetic manner rather than an explicit visualization.
This text may be difficult to read in an English or History classes without visual assistance due to the abstract nature of the play. Since multiple scenes may overlap or intersect, it can be difficult to visualize the action of the play. It would be best to perform a staged reading for the class, where students read the text while standing on a stage.
Letters to Sala was performed at Berry College in 2012, and photos of this production are available on their website: http://www.berry.edu/academics/humanities/finearts/theatre/page.aspx?id=101830
Letters to Sala was also performed at James Madison University. Photos of this production are available on their website: http://www.breezejmu.org/life/article_5f70ec90-ed34-11df-8e6f-00127992bc8b.html?mode=image
Photos and translations of Sala’s letters are available for viewing on the New York Public Library website through the Sala Garncarz Kischner Collection on the NYPL’s Online Exhibition Archive: http://web-static.nypl.org/exhibitions/sala/full/ak177.html