Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime

Zawiercie Cemetery

When my mother returned to Europe in 1947, first to see my father in Paris, then to visit Zawiercie, she placed a new stone on her aunt Zosia’s grave. Forty-six years later I photographed her in that cemetery, clutching a few flowers and gesturing toward where she remembered Zosia’s resting place to be. She had arrived at this moment so certain of the grave’s location that instinct propelled her movements, and where the bottom of her dress blends with the undergrowth she seems to float, melting in the background and creating an almost audible rustling. But time and memory betrayed my mother in that place, and our efforts to find the grave went unrewarded.
Though we visited on a sunny day, with the light glaring hard above the canopy of trees, the glow inside the cemetery was soft, the light barely trespassing its boundaries. Ivy flooded the ground, poised to soon engulf the land and overwhelm any visual link to the past. Once proud tombstones testifying to centuries of Jewish life and death were now at the mercy of the whims of nature, like the pitch and yaw of tiny boats in a raging sea.


Old Friends

” On our way to Zawiercie we had stopped in Sosnowiecz to see Mania Orbachowa, a friend of my mother’s from before the war. Her apartment overlooked a busy street with railroad tracks in the distance where trains carried coal across Upper Silesia, the region in southwest Poland encompassing Cracow, Zawiercie, and Auschwitz. Mania lived alone with her memories and had assumed that we would stay with her, even preparing her own bed for us to sleep in. But we declined to inconvenience her, choosing instead to stay in a tired Communist-era hotel with a casino I was barred from entering because I wore blue jeans.
In the fading light of that day I photographed Mania’s bed, the tired covers turned back so carefully. The dull wallpaper in her bedroom was torn and dry glue showed at the seams. It felt as if the clock of her life had stopped, our visit a silent gray dream from the past. My mother and her friend sat together and spoke loudly, their words punctuated by muffled wails and tears. I wandered around quietly in the other rooms of the apartment, looking through my camera while trying to understand the emotions I was hearing, feelings spoken in the language I had heard as a child but was now so distant from.” 


Reunited

December 18, 1945
Paris
Dear Franusia!
I received your letter an hour ago and you can only imagine what it meant for me. I felt, deep in my soul, that maybe it was you. I am alone, in Paris now, living here for over half a year since American soldiers found me dying in Buchenwald and thinking that I was French, sent me to Paris.

Those words form the first paragraph of the first letter my father sent my mother after learning through a small newspaper ad that she was looking for him. She had been taken to Brussels after surviving a death march from Auschwitz to Ravensbrück and within six months began looking for family and for the man who stole her heart.
Their reunion in January 1946 was the beginning of a powerful love story, albeit one that was tested and challenged by the chaos in the American immigration system directly after World War II. His letter is but one of dozens between them included in Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime, my book about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust.