Christel Herzog, likely overhearing the conversation, drifts into the living room and sits, quietly listening. She seems concerned.
(“I thought this was going to be about art,” she would say to me later. So had I.)
With little prompting, even as we move on to continue the discussion of Herzog’s career, and I ask how his late-in-life success has affected him, he returns to the subject of the Holocaust.
“I cannot convincingly say I think everything about it was the way it’s being described. That’s why I say ‘so-called,’ and I should not have said that. But what it says, there are some doubts in my mind that the real story is being told. And that is augmented by what happens between Israel and Palestine. The same lack of justice that the Jews experienced in Germany is now experienced by Palestinians in what used to be their country.”
At the end of the interview, I reveal my own history to Herzog.
“I have to tell you about my family,” I say. “My parents are Holocaust survivors. My mother was in Auschwitz … and all my grandparents were murdered in gas chambers.”
Taken aback, it is Herzog who now begins to ask the questions.
“Even those who worked were never well-fed?” he wants to know.
“I stand corrected. I stand corrected,” he finally says, and goes searching in his basement for a book of photographs by Roman Vishniac, whose prewar pictures of Jews in Poland constitute an important archive. He insists I take it home. At the door, he is offering explanations; he tells me about his mother, and that class photograph. He emphasizes that he seeks statistics in any matter; that he is in search of the truth, always.
I am shaking when I leave the house. Herzog’s cozy living room on the west side of Vancouver is a million miles, a million years, from the horrors of the Second World War. And yet, there they were, right in front of us: A wall. A bridge. Fred Herzog and I share a history.
My father was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1919; my mother in Radom, Poland, in 1925. They were Jewish. Both are now dead, but throughout their lives they spoke often about the war.
My mother remembered well the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939: It meant she couldn’t return to school, after looking forward to it all summer. In 1941, her family was forced out of their comfortable apartment and moved into the cramped ghetto. Her little brother, who did not look Jewish, snuck out of the ghetto regularly, selling cigarettes in exchange for food. It was around this time that my mother was approached on the street by a German soldier and told to report to work cleaning barracks. Ironically, it was a life-saver: From there, she became a forced labourer at a munitions factory, and was there, working, when her parents and little brother were rounded up and deported to Treblinka. They were gassed on Aug. 18, 1942.
In 1944, my mother was sent to Auschwitz, where she was miraculously reunited with her sister. After more than two months of eluding what seemed a certain death, my mother was sent to a munitions factory in Lippstadt, Germany – a subcamp of Buchenwald. On March 29, 1945, the inmates began a forced death march toward Bergen-Belsen. On April 1, they were liberated by American soldiers.
My father escaped an execution-style death in either the Piotrkow Trybunalski or the Lodz ghetto (he was in both, and that is one detail I am unsure of) by bribing a German soldier with a watch and promising to return with more jewellery. Instead, he ran, hid in a park, and ultimately managed to get false papers; the wife of a Polish official took pity on my father and his blue, blue eyes. He ultimately escaped to, of all places, Germany, living out the rest of the war posing as a Catholic farm worker named Tadeusz, or Tadek – a name that stuck for the rest of his life. His parents, sister and little brother were deported to Treblinka. They were gassed on Oct. 20, 1942.
After the German defeat, my father went searching for his sister, asking freed Jewish women if they knew of her. That’s how he met my mother. They married, had a daughter – classified as a Displaced Person – and arrived in Canada in 1951. In Toronto, they had two more daughters. We never had grandparents.