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Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog stands beside one of his photographs during a press preview at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Jan. 25, 2007. (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick / The Globe and Mail)
Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog stands beside one of his photographs during a press preview at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Jan. 25, 2007. (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick / The Globe and Mail)

Visual art

The collision: Fred Herzog, the Holocaust and me Add to ...

When he was a young boy in Germany, Fred Herzog – back then he was Ulrich; the name Fred came later, in Canada – remembers his mother showing him her school picture, pointing to the Jewish girls in the photo. They were the smartest in the class, she told her young son. Even as a child, he could sense her resentment.

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This memory has stayed with Herzog the way a photograph holds on to a moment. It's there, always, even if it remains tucked away in a drawer.

Photographs would, eventually, become a refuge for Herzog. The boy who saw too much in wartime found some peace behind a camera, training his sights on his adopted city of Vancouver with the eager eye of a new arrival, and the skill of a master. For decades, he took tens of thousands of Kodachrome slides that sat largely unseen. It wasn't until he was well into his 70s that recognition came – for his photographs, which burst with colour and history and for himself, a pioneer in his craft.

Fred Herzog had risen from the ashes of his bombed-out youth in Germany to illuminate the history of Vancouver, as arguably the city's most important – if for many years, obscure – visualdocumentarian.

But even 100,000 images of the new world cannot erase the traumas of the past.

Last fall, I had occasion to interview Herzog, who is 81, at his modest home on the west side of Vancouver. The book Fred Herzog: Photographs was being published, and it was an opportunity to talk about his life, his method, the impact of his late-in-life success.

Our conversation about art derailed into what he later described to me as a collision. The turn came when Herzog offered his thoughts on the Holocaust – or, as he initially referred to it, “the so-called Holocaust.”

It was a conversation that has stayed with me for months as I returned to Herzog for subsequent discussions, the story was considered by my editors, and I struggled with its meaning and with its potential impact on how Herzog's career will be assessed.

There was – there is – a personal struggle, too. I am a child of Holocaust survivors.

All he owned, gone

Ulrich Herzog was born in the German town of Bad Friedrichshall in 1930 and grew up in Stuttgart amid the intensifying hold of the Nazis. His father was deeply concerned; he knew no good could come of war. His mother, however, was more supportive of the Nazi campaign, even taking young Ulrich to one of Hitler’s rallies in 1938.

There was no glory in wartime. His mother died in 1941, after contracting paratyphoid. His father survived his factory being bombed – he was home eating lunch. In 1944, the family home, too, was bombed. Nobody was hurt – Ulrich was safely in the nearby town of Rottweil – but it was devastating. “This was the biggest trauma I personally suffered,” Herzog told me. “All my books and toys and things I owned were gone.”

His sister’s boyfriend, a Hitler Youth leader whom the artist remembers as a fine person and a good role model, was drafted into the army at 18, and died within days of arriving in Russia.

Six months after the war ended – a humiliating defeat for Germany – Herzog was back in school.

“One of the most surprising and devastating things to me was meeting after the war was over with my schoolmates and not one of them would talk about their war experiences,” he said. “They only wanted to talk about soccer. That was devastating to me. I just could not believe that this war had already been forgotten by them.”

His father died in 1946; Herzog feels the war and its trauma were responsible. Still in high school, Herzog was left in the care of an unloving stepmother who kept food from the children. Later, he worked for wealthy relatives who treated him poorly.

In 1952, Herzog left Germany for Canada, starting out in Toronto. He didn’t have much but had brought his camera and other photographic equipment. Before the end of his first day in Toronto, Herzog was out of money. He sold his coin collection for a little less than four dollars and hocked his enlarger at a second-hand store.

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