Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Jurgen Schadeburg
Pan Macmillan

The memoir of legendary Drum photojournalist Jurgen Schadeberg brings to life the devastation of post-war Germany and the destruction wrought upon South Africa by apartheid.

It sketches the journey of one man’s relentless pursuit of fulfillment through photography, fiercely and successfully fighting obstacles put in his way.

Born in Berlin, Schadeberg meticulously sketches his life from the impressionable age of 10 in 1941.

He describes the extent of the devastation of the city during the war. This account of a boy caught in the crossfire brings to vivid life buildings reduced to ruins, burying rotting corpses.

The teen Schadeberg’s career started as a volunteer apprentice photographer in Berlin and developed after he emigrated to SA in 1950 where he became a celebrated lens man, mainly at Drum magazine.

He captured huge events in world history, spanning Africa, Europe and the US.

In 1941, the Third Reich was at its pinnacle despite the war, and its Chancellor was almost worshipped by millions of Germans, especially those with a nationalistic streak.

However, not everyone blindly believed in the infallibility of the leader, or the extreme brand of nationalism that the Nazis determinedly pursued.

Schadeberg writes that many quietly disapproved, but were afraid to publicly express their opinions, choosing to register their disapproval in private conversations with close friends and confidantes.

"Berliners considered [Adolf] Hitler to be little more than a pretentious and dangerous upstart," he writes.

"Berliners were more sophisticated than most Germans, and traditionally had sympathised with communism rather than with the Nazis’ nationalism and socialism."

As the war escalated, he writes of the worsening ground situation in Berlin, with frequent air raids that forced residents to seek shelter in bunkers.

The city fell to the Allied Forces, and was divided into British and Russian controlled territories. It is then that the full extent of the destruction dawned upon the teenager, who had absconded from a Nazi-enforced national service.

"Some three weeks after the end of the war in May, some information started to appear. A new administration formed by the Occupation Army began to arrange the population. Work gangs of women started to clear the streets of rubble," he writes.

"And, of course, because it was the end of May, the weather was becoming warmer and so the bodies lying in the streets and in the ruins of buildings had to be buried quickly to prevent diseases spreading," he writes.

Fate was kind, and as soon as the war ended a British soldier, Captain Oswald Hammond, 30, befriended Schadeberg’s actress and socialite mother Rosemarie, 40. They married soon after.

Hammond was a member of a special unit established to capture former Nazi rocket scientists, but because he married a German, he had to leave the army. He emigrated to SA with his wife, and they left Schadeberg in Berlin, basically to survive on his own devices.

"They left me with a small suitcase, a [train] ticket to Hamburg and a letter to a lawyer by the name of Jacobi," he writes.

Schadeberg did not have a good relationship with Hammond and it remained strained when he joined his family in SA. "I think he was jealous of anybody who became too close to my mother," he writes.

Left to hustle on his own, relatives were not that helpful in his precarious situation.

With no food, accommodation or job, he lived in an overcrowded shelter for people displaced by the war.

However, with Jacobi’s help, he found work as an apprentice photographer at a photo agency. Schadeberg soaked up the opportunity to learn all aspects of photography.

He spent two and half years in Hamburg, honing his photography skills. It provided a meal ticket, especially later, when he immigrated to SA.

"In 1950, I travelled on an Ocean Castle Union Liner from Southampton to Cape Town and later took another train to Park Station, carrying my trusted Leica camera and a suitcase," Schadeberg writes.

Johannesburg was a tough environment for the 19-year-old photographer as the National Party had come into power in 1948 and apartheid was in full swing. Although as a white person he was in a privileged position, SA was a cultural shock.

Apartheid regime

He believed the apartheid regime was not different from fascist Nazi government in Germany. From the start he had issues with how blacks were generally treated by whites.

Schadeberg soon found work at Werner Studios, a prominent photo agency that specialised in weddings, but he wanted to work in the media.

Eventually he was hired at Drum magazine, owned and edited by highly-decorated SA cricketer Bob Crisp. The publication had just launched and had only three employees — the legendary Drum journalist Henry Nxumalo as chief reporter, Crisp and his secretary.

Drum’s readers were mainly urban blacks, which isolated Schadeberg from mainstream white society who did not associate with "natives" as equals.

Schadeberg quickly made a name for himself in journalism, working with pioneering writers, among them E’skia Mphahlele, Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza, Arthur Maimane, Bob Gosani, Ernest Cole, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa.

He took iconic photos of leading lights in South African jazz such as Miriam Makeba, Thandi Klaasen, Dorothy Masuka and Hugh Masekela — whose careers he helped launch — and political leaders including Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela.

Now based in Spain with his wife Claudia, he has written an enriching book that is an important repository of history.