Visu­al Arts

Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime

Max Hir­sh­feld, with essays by Michael Beren­baum and Stu­art E. Eizenstat

  • Review
By – July 27, 2020

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 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.

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