Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime by Max Hirshfeld (Damiani, £40)
This is a story of fierce love kindled during a time of hate. The author, American photographer Max Hirshfeld, tells the tale of his Shoah survivor parents in a unique way.
Brimming with Hirshfeld’s exquisite photographs, Sweet Noise is two books in one. The first, prefaced by a moving introduction by scholar Michael Berenbaum, is a series of letters written between Max’s parents, Polish Jews Frania and Julek, who fall in love in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. They are deported to Auschwitz and just manage to emerge alive in 1945 — she slips away from a death march and he is kicked awake by an American soldier.
When the war is over, with a huge dose of luck they find each other in Paris. But then they endure a second hell. Frania emigrates to the USA, expecting Julek to follow shortly. But his permission to travel is denied, blocked by new, restrictive immigration laws and agonisingly slow bureaucracy. Their poignant letters express the feelings, as Berenbaum says, of survivors “who needed that love to contrast all they had experienced.”
But if they knew anything at all, they knew how to endure and, after four long years of endless delays, despair and entreaties to governments, bureaucrats and, finally, journalists, they are reunited in America in June 1949.
They move to Alabama and years later their son Max has only a vague sense of his parents’ background. At night, he can hear Julek having nightmares but is preoccupied with his own teenage problems. Then he is shocked awake by his father’s profound distress after a racist paints a swastika on their house.
His mother begins to tell a local church group about her experiences but, for Max, they are still far removed from his life; still attached to what he regards as strange, murky background. To him, Frania’s stories, “hovered in the thick Alabama air like ominous clouds that refused to release their rain”.
After his father’s death, Max decides he needs to know more. In the second half of the book, he escorts his now-elderly mother back to Poland and photographs the journey. She talks to people in her home-town and they don’t believe her stories until she pulls up her sleeve to expose the blue number on her arm.
In Auschwitz itself, she shows Max the rough wooden platform where she used to sleep with six others, using her own urine to wash vermin from her legs. She tells him how, when she came off the train, she was directed towards the gas chamber, and how a friend saved her by pulling her into the line of women being taken to work.
She was given nursing work, surrounded by the constant smell of burning flesh. Her pregnant sister came to Frania’s ward to have her baby and afterwards the baby was thrown out of the window.
Max listens and his stomach twists as he is haunted with visions of smoking chimneys and the sound of jackboots on the stairs. He admits to his own fear of confronting so much cruelty. He hides behind his camera, hoping to postpone the emotions until he sees the prints in the darkroom. The pictures themselves are powerful and stark. They are the evidence of a delicate soul triumphing over great evil. The most moving are his portraits of Frania facing her demons, her sensitive, beautiful face full of mourning — and defiance.
The pictures have no captions. This drove me nuts at first. Who am I looking at? What’s the quick take? But there is no quick take. And that’s the charm of this book. Once you quell your impatience and slow down enough to read its rich text, it becomes clear who is in the pictures and where they are. In the afterword, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, former adviser to Presidents Carter and Clinton, points out how the larger history is told through this intensely personal story, important in these days of increased European antisemitism.
There are many accounts of the Holocaust that list endless atrocities until the mind goes numb. This book, too, faces those horrors but does so in an emotional yet satisfying blend of hurt, longing and victorious love.
Johnny Belknap is a designer and writer