‘I know that it happened’
A few days after our interview, I call Herzog. It is not a conversation I’m looking forward to, but I need to speak to him again. Our talk ranges widely, shifting from the past to contemporary subjects such as the environment.
“I’m more focused actually on what’s happening now,” he says. “I have people who are very educated who say even if we did the right thing now, mankind cannot be saved. I just want to state that to you because it has to do with an orientation that’s forward-orientated rather than backward-looking. So if I haven’t fully understood the injustices of the Holocaust, it was probably because I just didn’t want to read about it. I’ve seen the pictures and I know that it happened, but I did not research it and attach guilt to myself.”
What about those books, I ask him, the ones with those delousing theories? How did he come to read them?
There was one book published in Switzerland, he says, a gift years ago from a housepainter, now dead. “It presented a different view, which I know now is incorrect.”
He says what he’s been hearing about the Holocaust – from Jewish friends, including his ophthalmologist – is having an impact. “It’s gradually been sinking in that this actually happened the way it’s being described. But I’m the kind of person who, as I told you, would like to see how the numbers and the statistics were arrived at.”
He says our discussion affected him. “You changed my point of view, to some extent.”
Was it the trauma of living through the war at such a young age that had led to such a point of view?
“What has shaped me is growing up without parents who love me, more than anything else,” he says. “That was what made me streetwise. Almost nothing else, not even the war, did that.”
Months later, reconnection
Fred Herzog spent some time in Costa Rica this year, taking photographs. He returned in April, and I was able to talk with him yet again, after thinking about what he’d said for some time. Over the telephone, he repeatedly apologized.
“I have thought about the conversation a fair amount,” he said. “I think the main thing, I was just unprepared for that question at that time. I was so overloaded with other issues that I could not have a level appreciation of your question.”
I do not remind him that my question was simply whether he had experienced racism as a German in postwar Toronto. Also, I’m not looking for apologies. I believe he is sorry about what he said. What I want to know is why he said it.
“I was in a state of shock,” he says. “When you brought it up, I reached into something that I no longer believe.”
What did he once believe and where did that belief come from?
“The reason I gave you the wrong answer to the Holocaust. … To begin with, when I grew up in Germany after the war, nobody ever talked about the Holocaust. Nobody. Not my boss, not the other employees. Nobody there ever talked about the Holocaust. It was actually a seamless denial. And it was only after I had left Germany, I think there were some trials in West Germany where the Holocaust problem was driven home to Germans in such a way that they could no longer ignore it. … I remember reading right after the war that there were six million Jews killed and I talked to people about that and most people said they had no idea. And I think on the other hand some people must have had an idea that bad things were happening but simply put their head in the sand.”
We discuss a couple of his works: one of my favourites, Black Man Pender – the dignified black gentleman holding the hand of his young daughter as they stroll through Vancouver’s Chinatown with their cocker spaniel – and one of his, Paris Café. “The man in that picture looks somewhat disengaged, but I like the Santa Clauses and I like the price list of food,” he says. “The whole atmosphere is somewhat in contradiction with the high-flying name Paris Café. And I like that kind of inherent contradiction in many of my pictures. Every picture, I’ve sometimes said, has a curve ball in it. They’re not just pictures of pretty scenes. They’re pictures that have a curve ball in them which makes you think.”