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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 ...

It’s a question about his early time in Toronto that leads to the Holocaust. We’re about 30 minutes into our conversation when I ask whether he, as a German, experienced any racism in postwar Toronto; I note that his employer – an importer of glass and china – was Jewish.

Herzog explains that George Zimmer, with whom he got along very well, had had a business in East Prussia before the war, a big furniture business, and that he must have sold it at a comparatively low price, given the times.

“He never complained to me about that,” said Herzog. “That marks him as an unusual person, because even now, many of the people I know, many doctors, are Jewish. And there isn’t one who spares me hearing about relatives who were, you know, treated badly during the war and the so-called Holocaust.”

My throat goes tight.

“The business with the Germans rounding up the Jews and putting them into cattle cars is true, there’s no doubt about that,” he continued. “But there were other factors why there were so many undernourished people in the end, because the low-flying fighter bombers made it impossible to supply these camps with food, so there were many people very emaciated from not eating.”

“You think that’s because they couldn’t get food supplies?” I ask.

“You couldn’t,” he says, and continues to explain.

I’m still having trouble believing where the conversation has gone and try to clarify what he is saying. “So do you believe,” I ask, “that the Nazis would have fed the Jews better in these camps had the Allies not been bombing the area?”

He says he wishes he knew all the facts, but this is what he has read.

I had been mostly silent since the “so-called Holocaust” remark; my recorder captures the odd “uh huh” interspersed with his remarks. Finally, about five minutes after he said it, I return to the phrase. “You used the term ‘so-called Holocaust.’ Why did you?”

Herzog, who has a tendency to ramble, is stopped by my question. He starts to answer, stumbles over his words, takes a moment, then launches in.

“The Holocaust, I should perhaps not say ‘so-called.’ Here’s what it is: I have, I’m interested [in]what went on, but I don’t see how statistics were made or arrived at. The number of six million apparently was decided at a meeting in New York in 1945 or ’46. And so I don’t know whether it was six million or not. And here’s what I say: If something is that awful … you don’t have to exaggerate it. That there was a principle injustice, and [that it was]indefensible by any standards – that, I have no trouble about. But that people were in such numbers gassed and gotten rid of – that is disputed, depending on where you come from. I don’t dispute it, because I have a relative in Germany who used to be the personnel manager of the city where I come from, and he says he has seen the evidence, that he’s seen the hardware that was used to gas people.

“But there were other books I have read which say much of this was actually delousing. The rooms with the gas were actually delousing rooms, because lice were one of the biggest problems and the biggest killers of Jews in the camps. So it’s something I’d like to see a little bit more carefully, you know, collected: evidence and how the numbers are arrived [at] That people were needlessly killed, there’s no doubt. That people died on trains being transported is fact. That people died of hunger at the end of the war is fact. But many people, nine million Germans, were thrown out of wherever they lived. Nine million, and with no place to go. And many of those died of hunger and what not.”

He pauses. Is my tape recorder running, he wants to know. Yes, I tell him. He seems troubled.

“It’s personal,” he says. “And I’m not against anything that is being said except that I would like to see it better documented.”

Herzog is very clear that the Nazis “were absolutely mean toward Gypsies and Jews in a totally mean and stupid way,” and that he did not like Hitler. “I have no love affair with the fascists. But I’m trying to find out the cause. I’m interested in facts.” He points out that his wife’s best friend, and his best friends, are Jewish. “So we’re not against Jews,” he says.

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