“A Play About Letters”

December 7, 2007

Last night, I went to a play called Letters To Sala.  The play is a work in progress, directed and written by Beth Lincks, who also goes by the name Arlene Hutton (she writes under the latter name, directs under the former).  Letters To Sala was inspired by the book Sala’s Gift, by Ann Kirshner, the daughter of the title character.

Sala, a Polish Jew, was sent to a Nazi labor camp at the age of sixteen.  Actually, she volunteered to go, taking the place of her older sister, who was too sickly to make the journey herself.  At the time she left home, she believed she would be released after six months in the camp.  Instead, she remained a prisoner of the Nazis until the end of the war over five years later.

Over the course of her imprisonment, Sala kept a secret diary and managed to hold on to every piece of correspondence she received — over 350 letters from family, friends, and suitors — though she was forbidden to do so by the Nazis.  She concealed these letters and the diary despite inspections and despite being moved to seven different labor camps — an act of courage and defiance so powerful and so subtle, that I can scarcely comprehend it.  In 1991, she gave the letters to her daughter, who began to read through them, research the names of the camps and the correspondents.  Ann wrote her book, and eventually, over the objections of her own daughters, donated the documents to the New York Public Library.  They are currently on display in the Senate Rotunda in Washington.

Beth’s play is remarkable — the script is powerful, the staging is brilliant.  When eventually it’s completed and produced in New York, it will be a stunning success; I’m certain of it. 

As a Jew, I was moved to tears more than once, not only by my outrage and grief for all that Sala endured, but also by my pride in her resilience and bravery.  As I writer, I was struck again and again by the power of memory and the written word.  This is, as Beth puts it, a play about letters.  But more than that, it’s a play about the connections forged when we put pen to paper.  As Sala herself said — and I’m paraphrasing here — she kept those letters, because in doing so she kept alive every person who had written to her.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an entry about the digitizing of written material and what we lose when the actual document is gone.  Letters To Sala is, on some level, about that same thing.  Even if we were to assume for a moment that the technology had existed at the time, or if we were to project Sala into the digital age, this story would have no power with digital communication — emails instead of letters.  The paper itself was a treasure.  The feel of those pages; the knowledge that her sister or mother or friend had at one point touched that same envelope.  That’s why it was so important that she keep every one of them; that’s what allowed her to turn correspondence into defiance, to make her longing for those she loved into a weapon that she could use against her oppressors.

There is power in the written word.  But more, there is power in the printed page itself, or even in a simple note written in a familiar hand.


5 Responses to ““A Play About Letters””

  1. maralorelei said

    Thank you for sharing about this play in progress–I wish I could see it for myself! I agree with you about the importance of the letters being physical items that were handled by both parties–a bond forms on the paper itself, even beyond the words, and the legacy of these people live on.

  2. davidbcoe said

    Thanks for the comment. I’m sure that, before long, the play will be produced somewhere more accessible than this little college town, and lots of people will be able to see it.

  3. maralorelei said

    Little college town? Where? I’m near one myself, where I go to school, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. (It’s about an hour or so away from another state school in California, PA . . . if we mess up with geography in this state, we can blame the namers of our towns!)

    I do hope and wish for the best that this production will soon reach a wider audience. It needs and appears to deserve one, with this subject matter . . .

  4. Graham said

    In regard to the play you saw;

    It would be wise of people to, perhaps, read Victor Frankls book, “Man’s Search For Meaning”.

    It does not seek to necessarily answer the question of why humans do what they they do to each other, but certainly, it seems to me, to offer a means by which we may consider the question:

    What would I do?



    (Have you read it, David?)

  5. davidbcoe said

    No, I haven’t read it. Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the recommendation.

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