Max Hirshfeld grew up hearing his father Julek’s wails during dark nightmares, taking him unwillingly back to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and a death march; otherwise, Hirshfeld enjoyed a quiet childhood in a small, mostly non-Jewish city in Alabama, with a rudimentary understanding of his parents’ Holocaust experience. A trip in 1993 to Poland with his elderly mother Franusia brought the tragedies of her early years closer to the fore, visiting cities in the country she once called home that ultimately became the sites of her incarceration, notably the Zawiercie ghetto and Auschwitz.
A professional photographer, Hirshfeld captures Franusia’s emotional return and the landscapes of their journey, inescapably tinged by the artist’s own response. Thirty-five haunting black-and-white photographs by Hirshfeld and a single color photo accompany a few archival images of his parents from their youth. One particularly compelling two-page spread is a tour-de-force of light, shadow, and composition; it depicts a small, casual group of present-day Polish Jews in the sanctuary of an opulent synagogue. This lone nod to religion stresses beauty and the living rather than horror and the dead.
Just as powerful for Hirshfeld’s understanding of the horrific trials his parents faced, was the discovery of hundreds of letters that the young lovers exchanged in the immediate post-war period. Engaged in a clandestine romance before the war and briefly reunited after, they soon found themselves caught up in immigration red tape. As Julek wrote in late December 1945 to Franusia, who he addresses as “My Everything”: “When will I touch you? Take you in my arms? If I could I would fold myself into this envelope.” These passionate letters reveal the depth of their love, longing, and bureaucratic challenges to find their way back to each other following liberation. Franusia made it to the United States but Julek was stuck in Europe for over four agonizing and frustrating years. Julek wrote in mid-May 1946, with disturbing echoes of the present, “I am so sad now and feel so helpless facing the idiotic stupidity of those animals who dare call themselves humans. They have power, they establish borders, make up the ideas of passports and visas, and construct thousands of fences and obstacles in our short lives.” The poetic letters disclose a compelling love story, and trace an all-too recognizable struggle. In the end, providence gave Julek and Franusia a new, free life — another liberation — finally together on American soil.
Short essays by Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, and author and diplomat Stuart E. Eizenstat, bookend this beautifully-produced volume.
Samantha Baskind is Distinguished Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. She is the author or editor of six books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica and is currently series editor of Dimyonot: Jews and the Cultural Imagination, published by Penn State University Press.