I got to know Max through his wife, the stylist Nina Mason, who helped us style shoots for newspaper-insert magazines we published for HGTV in the early Aughts. He’s a stunning photographer, and I’ve always admired his work.
Needless to say, I was following when I saw Max published Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime, a book inspired by a trip he made with his mother in 1993, back to Poland where she was raised—and where she and Max’s father were imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II.
More than a decade after their trip, and after his mother had died, Max found more than 700 letters his parents had exchanged after the war, in the years they were trying to reunite in the States, where they would eventually settle in a small town in Alabama and raise their son.
“This really is an amazing country,” Frania wrote to Julek soon after the war. “It seems as if everybody lives well and that everybody is a real human being. I think you will like it here, and if not, I will go anywhere in the world with you!”
I sent Max some questions about his experience—growing up, finding the letters, writing the book—after his presentation last month.
Did your parents share much about their experience while you were growing up in Alabama?
My mother yes, my father hardly ever. I write about that very thing in the book when I describe my mother speaking to a large gathering. As with most kids — and not having a survivor community around me — I didn’t really start to ask questions until I was in my 30’s, several years after my father had died.
Why did they choose Alabama?
My dad was a textile scientist, and since so much of the industry was in the South back then, they naturally looked for work there. Alabama was the longest stop in a history that took them from Danville, VA to Valdese, NC to Gastonia, NC to Clemson, SC and eventually to Decatur, AL when I was about 4.
When did you first learn of all these letters between them?
I found the letters somewhere between 2002-2005. They were in ’that’ box that my mother gave me a few years before she died without specifying what was inside. I promptly put it away for a few years until I felt the tug of the work and began trying to get them translated in the hope that some of my questions could get answers.
What prompted that trip to Poland with your Mom?
She used to tell me that she wanted me to see where she came from, her place before.
As a professional photographer, did you feel that your instincts as an artist took over from your emotions as you watched her return to places with such painful memories?
Yes, certainly. Photography has always been my great comfort, and though I knew I may be confronted with emotional moments on our trip, it was the almost robotic nature of lifting the camera to my eye that allowed me to be more like an open book as I took pictures, thinking that I would respond later so I could relive the moments and try to absorb.
These letters are mostly from after the war. I don’t think there’s a lot of awareness about what Jews faced in the aftermath, especially considering other countries’ immigration laws and policies. What did you conclude about that after reading these letters? Seems like we haven’t changed that much in terms of how we treat asylum seekers?
The letters cover more than three years, and since there were two evident threads — how to maintain love in the face of such odds and how to navigate the tricky waters of immigration, I was continually struck how the chaos then was so much more profound than what we have now; yet the atmosphere is much the same. My father could have lied and gotten lost in the system with a temporary visa, but he wanted to do it the right way and become a legal, lifetime resident of the US so they held on. Pretty extraordinary in light of a such a deep love story.
Stuart E. Eizenstat, special adviser for Holocaust issues to President Obama and former U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., contributed an essay to Max’s book and led the conversation with him during the Jewish Book Week presentation—a fascinating dialogue that revealed there are still about 330,000 Holocaust survivors still living around the world, yet a collective amnesia seems to be growing. Eizenstat quoted a survey of Millennials that showed less than half could name a single concentration camp.
All the more reason to read this book. You can purchase it right here.