Max Hirshfeld’s photos have hung in museums, appeared in national ad campaigns and illustrated newsworthy events. For his latest project, the photographer has created an intimate portrait of his parents, Holocaust survivors who met in a Polish ghetto and fell in love while awaiting their deportation to death camps.
The book, Hirshfeld’s first, is Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime. It tells their story in photos and, in part, in their own words: post-war love letters that bridged the distance and time to their eventual reunion in the United States.
Hirshfeld, who lives on Brandywine Street, launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the publication of Sweet Noise. He is seeking to raise $23,000 by Tuesday, October 22nd.
Hirshfeld will be talking about his book at Politics and Prose Union Market on the evening of Saturday, November 2nd.
And, he talked to Forest Hills Connection about what this book means to him, and what he hopes it will mean to readers.
Marlene Berlin: Given the growth of hate crimes against Jews in the U.S. and the rhetoric against immigrants, your book Sweet Noise is very timely. It is a love story and an immigrant story. In 1993, fifty years after your parents met in the Polish ghetto Zawiercie, you accompanied your mother to Poland to retrace her journey. It became an important part of your book.
Could you tell us what led you to take this trip with your mother? And how old were both of you?
Max Hirshfeld: My mother used to say that before she died she wanted to show me where she was from. In early 1993 we moved her to Washington from Gastonia, North Carolina, and by July of that year we were headed to Poland. My mother was 75, and I was 42.
MB:What was your itinerary?
MH: Our trip was brief, ten days total. We flew to Warsaw for the first two days. Then we drove to Radom to see where my mother’s father lived. Opatow-Kielecki, where she was born, and Zawiercie, where she grew up and met my father were next on our itinerary. Then we went onto Cracow. The last stop was Auschwitz where both my parents were imprisoned for 16 months before being marched into Germany after the liberation of Auschwitz.
MB: Could you tell us about your visit to Radom?
MH: Even though my mother never knew her father (who died three months before she was born due to the typhoid epidemic that raged through Europe in World War I) she wanted to go to Radom. Her father had owned land there, and she was convinced that we could find someone who might help us reclaim ownership. We entrusted a man we met there, whose father had the largest funeral business in Radom before the war, with $500. He promised to use the money to contact an attorney experienced in land reparations. We never heard from him again.
MB: What was your most memorable experience of the trip?
MH: As we entered the building in Zawiercie where my mother was raised, a woman stopped us and asked why we were there. My mother explained that she had lived in the building for more than fifteen years. The woman was adamant that Jews never lived there. As my mother pushed up her sleeve to show her tattoo from Auschwitz, I managed to shoot one frame of this powerful moment. Who would have thought that the tattoo from Auschwitz might need to be used to prove your right to exist.
MB: What did you want to capture in your photographs you took?
MH: I am a firm believer in “show don’t tell” and think the reader will interpret their own meaning from the nearly forty photos in the book.
MB: How did you find your parents love letters?
MH: Several years after my mother passed I finally opened a box of mementos that she had left me five years prior to her death.
MB: You grew up in a small city in Alabama. What was it like growing up Jewish there?
MH: I grew up in Decatur, Alabama. My father’s career as a textile scientist took him to several small towns in the South before an important position with Monsanto landed him in Decatur when I three. With five Jewish families in a city of 35,000, I attended Sunday school in Huntsville where I was both Bar-mitzvah’d and confirmed. There was one incident of anti-Semitism that I write about in my book.
MB: Were there any parallels in what your parents experienced in Poland to what you experienced or learned later about growing up in your town?
MH: This is impossible to compare. Two worlds that were never meant to cross.
MB: Your photographs have appeared in news publications and ad campaigns. What it was like to turn the camera on your own parents and to share their story in such a personal way? Did you have any reservations?
MH: Photography is one of the greatest gifts I have received and works to cement my view of the world into a tangible form. The camera was a shield and a comfort when I witnessed my mother’s challenging attempt at closure.
MB: What would you like people to take away from reading your book?
MH: My book highlights the challenges that normal people face when hoping to emigrate to the U.S. and shows how the anti-Semitism my parents experienced in Poland has a bigger world stage than ever and continues to threaten mankind.
I also hope Sweet Noise spurs an increase in sharing family history across multiple generations.
MB: How can people help support the publishing of Sweet Noise?
MH: A love story with the Holocaust as a backdrop is pretty heady stuff and should have universal appeal. Supporting my Kickstarter campaign helps guarantee publication, and sharing the link shares the story. Please click here. The campaign ends on October 21. You can find more information about the book here.