When worlds collide, or seeing conflict as a crisis in human interaction

Herzog, Paris Café, 1959, inkjet print. Collection of the artist, Courtesy of Equinox Gallery (Globe and Mail, online)

The starting point for the transformative model of mediation is an understanding of the nature of conflict as a crisis in human interaction. In this view, the crisis is characterized by two kinds of adverse impacts. First, in conflict each individual has a sense of her own diminished capacity to move past the situation. Second, each individual becomes more self-absorbed and, consequently, unable to see and hear the other person in an undistorted way. The transformative model then articulates how conversation, whether or not with an impartial third person, can foster the conditions within which people may move beyond their circumstances.

There is a poignant illustration of this power of conversation in Marsha Lederman’s feature article, “The collision: Fred Herzog, the Holocaust and me”, that appeared in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, May 5th, and online here. (Lederman describes Herzog “as arguably [Vancouver’s] most important — if for many years, obscure — visual documentarian.”)

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.

The ‘collision’ or conflict occurs when Herzog, in response to a question, refers to the so-called Holocaust:

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.

Read Lederman’s entire piece here and note how the conversations between Lederman and Herzog move for each of them through personal shock, reflection, and then openness to the other.

Listen to Herzog in a later conversation:

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.

And Lederman’s insight into what she has experienced:

After months of living with this, I’m surprised: I am able, I think, to see it all through Herzog’s battered lens.

I see his photography as the expression of a victim whose pain was not deemed valid in light of the atrocities of his countrymen and what others suffered; a young man who came to Canada and had to remain silent, but whose work speaks volumes.

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