Driving To Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father
“It is not you who will speak; let the disaster speak in you, even if it be by your forgetfulness or silence,” wrote Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster. When Diana Wichtel was twelve she moved from Canada to New Zealand with her mother and sister and brother, leaving her increasingly erratic and temperamental father behind. He never followed them and they lost contact. Many years later, Wichtel learned that her father had died in a Canadian psychiatric institution. Trauma expresses itself most eloquently through trauma. Ben Wichtel had survived confinement in the Warsaw ghetto, where he several times woke up next to someone who had died in the night. He jumped from a tiny window in the railway carriage that was transporting him to the Treblinka extermination camp and survived the rest of the war hiding in the forests of Poland with a Jewish resistance group. Almost everyone in his family was killed at Treblinka. Ben Wichtel could not choose not to be damaged by these experiences, and the harm of the Holocaust continues to be passed down through the generations, both within a family and in wider society. “I was always looking for my father,” writes Diana Wichtel, “even when he was still there,” but “you get so used to nothing making any sense that you stop asking questions.” Upon arrival in New Zealand, Diana’s mother set their lives in a new direction and closed down the part of their lives that contained the children’s father. “When parents run from their history they also obliterate the history of their children," writes Wichtel. My mother didn’t know that the things she needed to leave behind in order to survive were precisely the things I needed to hold on to.” Many years later, unable to silence the clamourings of her memories of her father, Diana set out to find out more about him, travelling both to North America and to Poland, where she met and received information from relatives, visited the site of an underground hideout in a Polish forest that might have been where her father hid, and eventually found her father’s grave (with his name misspelled). Her search for the memory of her father involved both a search within herself and a search in the outer world, for memory is most effectively resolved by place. Wichtel’s writing is for the most part forensic and spare, effectively drawing emotional response from the reader rather than imposing it upon them. Although Wichtel finds probably as much about her father as it is possible to find, there is a sense that he is more absent than ever, if anything her father is almost overwritten by what she learns about him (but maybe that is what memory is for). The family provide a new headstone for his grave, one that acknowledges his story, but what happens to the recipient of a gift when they have died long before the giving of that gift? Memory and story are ways of externalising memory and loosening its unspeakable hold (which makes memory a form of forgetting). But, Wichtel insists, “there is no closure”. The Holocaust cannot make people better people. There is only unhealable trauma. “There is no personal growth to be had in that fathomless void.”
As a young child Diana Wichtel is brought up in Vancouver, Canada. Her mother is a Catholic New Zealander, her father a Polish Jew who miraculously survived the Holocaust. When she's thirteen, her life changes dramatically as her mother whisks her and her sister and brother away to New Zealand. Their father is to follow. She never sees him again. Many years later she sets out to discover what happened to him. The search becomes an obsession as she painstakingly uncovers information about his large Warsaw family and their fate at the hands of the Nazis, scours archives across the world for clues to her father's disappearance, and visits the places he lived. This unforgettable narrative is also a deep reflection on the meaning of family, the trauma of loss, and the insistence of memory. It asks the question: Is it better to know, or more bearable not to?
Shortlisted for 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards - The Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction.
Diana Wichtel is an award-winning journalist. She has been a feature writer and television critic at New Zealand Listener for 32 years. After gaining an MA at Auckland University she tutored English before moving to the Listener in 1984. She has written dialogue for television and a New Zealand Herald column. She was a 2016 holder of the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship.